Pet Shop Boys: Together, Battleship Potemkin & Concrete reviews

Posted May 23, 2011 in
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As troubling as I find the dying out of US physical CD singles, this is actually not the first release that the Pet Shop Boys have experimented with in the digital format—the singles from their last album (2009’s Yes) were only available digitally in this country. I won’t lament too much on this, as the web has brought availability and accessibility to us all—especially since I procured the singles as a standard British CD single set last November, as I’m sure many US fans did. What is astonishing is the strange delay between the release of the single set and April, when the Pet Shop Boys finally made their debut through their current US label, Astralwerks. I can’t help but wonder if the release of “Together” signals that the US will eventually get the Boys’ latest compilation Ultimate—where the track was initially culled from last fall. It hardly matters since the incredibly catchy “Together” stands very well on its own. I credit this to their working with ex-Xenomania founding member Tim Powell again, who both co-wrote and co-produced the track with them at his Brighton, UK studio last year.
Initially it took me a few listens to really appreciate the brilliance of “Together.” The chorus of “Together’s amazing/together we’re blazing/together we’ll go all the way” seemed simplistic at first, but with its strong sense of optimism and intense passion, I’ve been rewarded upon each subsequent listen. Neil Tennant’s repeating of the title makes it burrow into the brain that much more, while Chris Lowe’s overdubbed keyboards sound almost sinister to enhance the effect, as the track’s steady beat maintains the flow. Presented in the same manner as the import CD singles, one of the digital downloads features the radio mix and Grum’s sumptuous update of “West End Girls.” The next bundle includes the regular album version—although my ears can’t really tell the difference between it and the radio mix—plus their cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over” and their hauntingly beautiful take of the late Kate McGarrigle’s “I Cried For Us,” plus Powell’s ‘Extended Mix’ of the title track. Of course there is the track simply by itself if you prefer and likewise one format featuring just the video, but what I was most thrilled about—and I suspect other US fans were really waiting for too—is the opportunity to purchase the previous UK digital-only bundle featuring mixes by Ultrabeat and Powell alias Pepptalk as well as Grum’s dub of “West End Girls,” if only because it wasn’t commercially available before now. While my money is on the original version of Together being the very best, the delicious Grum remixes of “West End Girls” are fairly hard to beat as well.

Interestingly after this belated US release and their recent ballet The Most Incredible Thing, Astralwerks is now digitally releasing two earlier Pet Shop Boys albums for the first time in the US: 2005’s soundtrack to Battleship Potemkin and 2006’s BBC live concert Concrete. As like the Together singles, I suspect that most fans picked these two releases up originally as imports, but then again, as a fan who occasionally misses out on things, maybe not. It should be noted that regardless of format, it is impressive that these are being released at all, as some imports never see a US release at all.

Admittedly it has been a while since I’ve listened to Battleship Potemkin, the Boys’ updated soundtrack to the 1925 silent film of the same name, but in anticipation of writing this review, upon revisiting this as of late, I’ve been struck by its freshness. Originally conceived to be performed as a free concert alongside the film in London’s Trafalgar Square with an impressive crowd of nearly 20,000 in attendance, Tennant and Lowe (as they are credited here, rather than as ‘Pet Shop Boys’) composed the music using a limited range of electronic elements and strings in chronological order for the film. This discipline paid off nicely and enlisting the help of contemporary classical composer Torsten Rasch (due to their interest in his Rammstein-inspired Mein Henz Brennt) for the orchestrations, their compositions—which are performed in conjunction with the European Dresdner Sinfoniker orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer—are a marvel to behold.

In some ways as much a companion piece to their recent ballet score, Potemkin is also rather contemporary sounding, especially on the three full length tracks that Tennant sings on: “No Time For Tears,” “For Freedom” and the especially mesmerizing “After All (The Odessa Staircase).” All three could easily work on a regular Pet Shop Boys’ album and it is easy to sometimes forget what incredible song craft and detail Tennant and Lowe bring to their varied releases. Performed a few times in Britain, once in Spain, and various times in Germany, here’s hoping that a speculated DVD of the performance of Tennant and Lowe with the Dresdner Sinfoniker emerges at some point to accompany this unique and haunting soundtrack, as already some footage of the original event was released on the great British documentary A Life In Pop.

It is surprising that after several successful concert tours over the years, Concrete is actually their first concert album to be officially released on CD. Recorded before a limited audience of only 600 at London’s Mermaid Theatre on May 8th, 2006, a few weeks before 2006’s Fundamental release, Concrete is unique in that it was recorded with the BBC Concert Orchestra, under the musical direction of British legend Trevor Horn, who also co-produced Fundamental. Not surprisingly, it kicks off with their earlier Horn-produced hit “Left To My Own Devices” and is a pleasant balance of electronica, orchestration and even a full band, including Horn and his Art of Noise cohorts Anne Dudley (who has worked with PSB before) and Lol Crème, legendary musician/producer Steve Lipson, not to mention their longtime background vocalist, the divine Sylvia Mason-James and many other talents. Tennant is in fine voice and even playful at times as he addresses the intimate crowd between tracks and introduces the evening’s guest vocalists. Featuring six tracks from Fundamental, Concrete is also especially eclectic in the variety of selections from the Boys’ back catalog.

Featuring a handful of their biggest hits, like “West End Girls,” “It’s A Sin,” and “Rent,” here too are more interesting selections, like “Nothing Has Been Proved” (originally written and produced for Dusty Springfield), Very’s AIDS lament “Dreaming Of The Queen” and Potemkin’s aforementioned “After All.” The new tracks offer a nice variety of Fundamental, with the first live performance of “The Sodom And Gomorrah Show” being a particular favorite of mine. Equally amazing is “Casanova In Hell,” especially since they introduce Rufus Wainwright to sing it. In keeping with surprise vocalists, from their musical Closer To Heaven is the play’s original star, Frances Barber, to sing the beautiful ballad “Friendly Fire” from it. But nothing can top the guest for “Behaviour’s Jealousy” in the form of one Robbie Williams, which, as Tennant explains, was the first song he and Lowe ever wrote together. With both Tennant’s spoken Othello introduction and the use of the full orchestra, Williams’ performance is stunning in both its heartache and diction. Although the new album would shortly (and uniquely) be toured worldwide, Concrete presents a refreshing approach to a live performance and is certainly another worthy addition to the Pet Shop Boys’ ever-growing canon.

All three releases are available digitally now from iTunes and Amazon.