Music

Pet Shop Boys: Elysium

At this stage, are Pet Shop Boys better at talking about pop music than they are at making it?


Pet Shop Boys

Elysium

Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2012-09-11
UK Release Date: 2012-09-10
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In 1987, Pet Shop Boys released their sophomore album, Actually. Its cover featured keyboardist Chris Lowe looking nonplussed, while vocalist/keyboardist Neil Tennant yawned into the camera.LINK The duo were wearing tuxedos, and the photo was a droll swipe at the insipid state of the pop/rock establishment at the time. Or, combined with the phrase "Pet Shop Boys, actually" as it appeared on the cover, it was Tennant's and Lowe's ironic attempt to downplay their massive success. But in America, especially, the photo was interpreted as pretentious and smug.

Now, a quarter-century later, Pet Shop Boys comes Elysium, their 11th studio album. It is, for the most part, dull and insipid. You have to wonder if the irony of a band that used to make fun of dull pop music, releasing an album of dull pop music, is lost on Tennant and Lowe.

Once a band has been around as Pet Shop Boys have, and has established and honed such a singular sound, focus for each new album shifts to the matter of who the producer is. Much has been made of Tennant and Lowe's recording Elysium in Los Angeles with producer Andrew Dawson. Dawson is known for his work with R&B and hip-hop acts such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, and John Legend. Most of that work has been as engineer rather than producer, though. In any case, Tennant and Lowe have said they were looking for the spacious, electronic, yet soulful sound they associated with Dalton's work.

Sounds like a good plan, and it works, at least as far as the overall feel of Elysium is concerned. No matter whom they work with, Pet Shop Boys have a wonderful knack for sounding exactly like Pet Shop Boys, which means lots of lush synth pads, pulsing electronic rhythms, and Tennant's studied, sincere croon. But Dawson helps quiet things down and mellow them out, indeed giving every bit of percussion and every snare drum a good amount of space.

The toned-down style has drawn immediate comparisons to Pet Shop Boys' excellent, undervalued 1990 mood piece Behaviour. First track "Leaving" makes good on this comparison, and then some. Floating in on melancholy synths, cavernous percussion, and a swirling, flute-like riff, the track is gorgeous, affecting, and soulful in a way Pet Shop Boys have never been before. Add in an offhandedly catchy chorus and some trademark PSB choral samples, and you have an instant classic. The Dawson hire seems like a brilliant move.

But then…the rest of the album happens. And, though the production is suitably silver-lined throughout, you are forced to come to terms with one crucial difference between Elysium and Behaviour or any of Pet Shop Boys' best albums. That is, the songs.

Elysium is woefully short on what Tennant and Lowe do best, which is disarmingly sharp pop songs that stick in your head but also leave you thinking afterward. There are some good ideas at play here, for sure, but neither the music nor the lyrics do them justice. Even the stuff that works is recycled from previous Pet Shop Boys songs that have arguably done better jobs at hitting their marks. "Your Early Stuff" compiles observations Tennant has heard cabbies make about his band. You know, they're getting old, their early stuff was better, thought they were retired, etc. But the song hinges on a repeated chorus that, even at a mere 2 ½ minutes, starts to grate. "Ego Music" takes aim at pretentious, narcissistic pop stars. Tennant's deadpanned, in-character "I see myself as a building. My mind is an office where the work gets done" is great. The chorus, though, cuts no deeper than "Me Me Me Me / Yes Yes Yes Yes / You You You You / No No No No", sounding like a tune from a kids' show like Yo Gabba Gabba!. It's clunky and, frankly, lazy, whereas the similarly-themed "How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously? " from Behaviour sported musical sophistication to match its lyrical wit.

"Hold On" is the type of wistful, "all together now" anthem Pet Shop Boys can usually pull off with aplomb, a 'la "It's Alright" or "Go West". It makes use of male and female backing vocals to show off Tennant's and Lowe's recent diversions into theater, coming across like a stately, sad showtune. It's good, but its resignation seems only to underscore Elysium's general sense of exhaustion. Still, it's a highlight, and should go over great in concert.

At times Tennant and Lowe muster up the old energy, only for it to fade prematurely. "Face Like That" has a mean electro-bass and a fireworks show of electronic percussion that recalls the duo's mid-'80s heyday. But not even it can muster up lyrics or a chorus worth remembering. It's as if, having hit on a great instrumental track, Pet Shop Boys forgot they were supposed to turn it into a song.

There are pleasant, effortless midtempo ballads here, too. They are nondescript but inoffensive, which is more than can be said for "Winner". The problem with the song, the lead single, is not that Pet Shop Boys make such a shameless attempt to turn London Olympic fervor into a chart hit, it's that they use such a lame, lowest-common-denominator song to do so.

Neil Tennant is a former music journalist, and in a recent PopMatters interview, he discusses all things pop in engaging and enthusiastic fashion. Yes, Tennant can still talk the talk, but the pre-Pet Shop Boys, 1980s version of him would probably listen to an album like Elysium and…yawn.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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