I’ve mentioned that I went off Pet Shop Boys almost through their “Very” campaign back in 1993-1994. This was primarily down to their techno DJ styled single remixes which were very [a bitter “hah!] repetitive and reductive. So by some time in 1994, I went from buying every PSB release with something I didn’t have to none at all.
<fast forward 20 years…>
In 2014, I saw Pet Shop Boys live for the second time at Moogfest. It was a fantastic show and I had been trying to buy their new CD, “Electric,” prior to that event, but it was simply not available where I live. So that still hasn’t happened, but not for lack of trying. Later that year I saw their “Fundamental” CD in a thrift store for $1.50 and gambled 12 bits and found that I really enjoyed it a lot, so the brief since then was to buy the odd PSB album I didn’t already own and give it a try.
<fast forward 8 years…>
So last month I was antiquing with my loved one as we had not done much in the last 20 years. One of the dealers in an antique mall has CDs and a cursory glance released an odd, metallic mauve CD O-card with an all-white jewel box inside. Hmmmm. It was “Release” by Pet Shop Boys. Nothing I see on a regular basis. Unlike “Nightlife” or “Bilingual,” which are pretty much the only PSB CDs I ever see…anywhere. If another dealer didn’t have two 7″ singles I’d wanted to buy, I might have passed up on the “Release” CD. I seem to recall seeing it my last time in the antique mall, at least four or five years earlier, but that day I was not in a buying mood. The asking price was $3.00 with 20% off, so $2.40. It was the US 2xCD edition, is was clearly aiming for classy but stopped far short of that goal. I found it garish and ugly. Not a look I’d ever associates with the normally perfect design team of of PSB/Mark Farrow. Hopefully it would sound better than it looked.
Pet Shop Boys: Release – US – 2xCD 
Disc 1 – Album
- Home + Dry
- I Get Along
- Birthday Boy
- The Samurai In Autumn
- Love Is A Catastrophe
- The Night I Fell In Love
- You Choose
Disc 2 – Supplemental
- Home + Dry [Ambient Mix]
- Sexy Northerner
- Closer To Heaven [Slow Version As On Daily Telegraph CD]
- Friendly Fire
- Break 4 Love [Radio Edit]
- Home + Dry [Trance Mix]
I could not believe the artwork for this. Pet Shop Boys had what I thought was an ironclad relationship with Mark Farrow such that Pet Shop Boys cover art occuped a reliable niche in the highest caliber of sleeve design. That work was always powerful and economical; redolent of a well-thought-through aesthetic. This disc, on the other hand was redolent of mid-80s US shopping mall. Metallic mauve and flat white plastic. I could smell the tanning beds and hair care products just by looking at it.
The opaque white jewel box/booklet had the band name and title in spot varnish on the flat white plastic/paper, which would normally make me quite happy, but I felt that the embossed metallic rose O-card was the thing that stuck in my craw and irritated. The booklet revealed that Mark Farrow had nothing to worry about. His reputation was still intact. This CD was art directed by Greg Foley, who had one Paul Simon cover credit to his name prior to this and only a handful following this. The designer was Visionaire with Tatiana Gaz and Jake McCabe; tellingly, the only credit for all three here on Discogs. Would the music make me forget the design gaffes?
In a word, no.
The album kicked off with the seriously underwhelming “Home + Dry” which I found hard to believe that it was regarded as single material as the song was PSB at a level dishwater dull I had never encountered before. Yet, when I looked at PSB’s Discogs profile I was clearly shown which of the songs on this album were singles, and the images are duly embedded, so there’s no denying it! The equally inspirational sleeve art fit the music on it perfectly. Nothing to see [or hear] here…move along!
Until right now, I had no idea what were singles form this album. I’m apoplectic that the Beatlesque drivel that was “I Get Along” would ever pass muster as a Pet Shop Boys single. They pull every trick in the Beatles fakebook book on this one and as a result, the subtle synth ostinato that was battling against and guitars playing a single, repetitive, chord right…on…the…beat couldn’t help but roll over and play dead from the neck up. Knowing that Chris Lowe deliberately programmed his synths to sound like a french horn and strings makes me wonder if he lost a bet before this album was made. Without fail, this was certainly the worst Pet Shop Boys song I’d ever heard. And at 5:49, there was a lot of it to hear!
But this album was young. “Birthday Boy” was a leaden, plodding Jesus metaphor, heavy on the acoustic guitar, that dared me to push the >>| button. And at 6:26, was even longer and more unendurable than the previous song had been. It didn’t help that Neil Tennant sounded like he was on downers the whole time this dreary scenario was committed to hard drive. The third single from the album was the track “London,” which consisted of the twin affronts of acoustic guitars with Tennant’s Auto-Tuned vocal for the first minute! The scenario of Russians emigrating to the West had been done miles better as subtext in their 1993 cover of The Village’ People’s “Go West.” Strike three for the singles here, which were top loaded unwisely as three of the first four tracks.
“E-Mail” began with a modem handshake sound before the familiar “West End Girls” chord sequence, rendered identically on string patches, but saddled with the dreaded shuffle beat from a decade earlier landed a gut punch on me. The lyrics were as banal as I’ve ever heard from the formerly adroit pen of Tennant. I’d picked up on a vibe from fans discussing the band in forums over the last 25 years that the band had been struggling while I hadn’t been paying attention, but I was unprepared for just how badly they were flailing. On the evidence of this album so far, I’m astonished that the band still existed and managed to pull their smoking fat out of the fire for “Fundamental” four years hence.
Next: …The Repreive
I like “Home & Dry” and the “Samurai in Autumn” and that’s about it from here. Concurrent we had Disco 3 which is far superior (also dips its toes in produced music from Closer to Heaven) and there were the occasional things on their website as well, like the sublime “For All Of Us” and am still cheesed that “Little Black Dress” just floats around as a demo and fanmixes (thanks Blade and JCRZ).
Release really is a career low point.
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Tim – It’s at times like this that I’m really glad I stopped collecting Pet Shop Boys half a lifetime ago!
We all have our different tastes and preferences, I am able to appreciate your decision, however you are missing quite a lot of good music. The problem is some of the albums you have to wade through ten tracks for three exceptionally good ones.
Hotspot, release around the start of COVID, is in my opinion of what they were reaching for with Release in the sense that Release is a mostly underwhelming mess of halfbaked styles and Hotspot, while not having the continuity in the music like Very has, still presents an overall engaging album (except the last track, just don’t go there).
The Stuart Price years in general (and aside from Hotspot) are a real low point. If you think Release is bad try Super.
I am probably playing with fire here, but … Simple Minds, anyone? Years and years of mediocre releases, but we dutifully check out each new release in the hopes of a renewal (and periodically — however briefly — they do that).
The PSB catalog is at this point a real mixed bag after those first half-dozen albums, but I’d argue there’s some gems to be found on most of the post-Fundamental releases. I just wish that they would regain their instinct for what’s really good for their brand and what isn’t, and yes that would mean fewer albums.
But again, I could say that about SM. Or even, for a decade or so, my beloved Bowie.
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Being a fan that bathes regularly in PSB material, Release is that bottle of Suave that sits in the back of the cupboard under the sink. Release is PSB reacting to the music that was all around them. The notion of PSB with an acoustic guitar even in the same studio as them while recording, seems ridiculous. One appearing on an album of theirs is kind of offensive. They spent the end of the 90s on their Closer To Heaven project and I don’t feel they went into working on what would become Release with any real sense of an outcome. Many of the tracks have Pop/Musical feel to them and that seems to be the Boys just trying to shed that mantle rather than explore it further.
I will say that Neil in Auto-tune (that should have been the title of a remix at some point) on this album is a lesson in how not to use that particular parlor trick. It’s existed before and after in their lexicon, but not as un-artistically as on Release. London, while suffering some of the worst Auto-tune moments, is still a rather lovely PSB song.
Once the album gets past those first four tracks, it becomes much more interesting.
Echorich – The insult to injury was the fact that some of the acoustic guitar was actually Chris Lowe working with samples! Re: your Auto-Tune analysis… head of nail meet hammer. Until I got this album and started reading about it, I did not even know about “Closer To Heaven.” I was so far from even being aware of what PSB were doing in 2001. And yet after about a dozen spins [the things I do for this blog… the first one was sheer incredulity on my part] I have come to appreciate, and even love a few of these songs…as we’ll see tomorrow.
As they say on Futurama, “Good news, everyone!”
If you can get past Release, the quality level slowly goes up again!
The Monk and I were at the legendary 1991 Miami concert where Neil first appeared on stage with an acoustic guitar — to the shock of the audience — but used it wisely in that he started off “You Were Always on My Mind” with it before the productions values (and I mean production values) for that tour kicked in and turned it into the rave-up PSB fans love.
chasinvictoria – When I think back to the first Performance show, the biggest jolt will always be “Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” Since it was completely unprecedented and its first reveal, so there were no spoilers. The utter sub-mediocrity of “Release” had been another PSB shockeroo, but as Terry Jones might say, “it got better.”
I agree Release is among their weaker albums. But it does have a couple gems: “Here” and “The Samurai in Autumn.”
And as usual, as far as my own tastes go, they often save the best for b-sides of the associated singles. “Sexy Northerner” on the flip side of the Home and Dry single is one of my favorites of theirs.
I must agree with Tim who commented above that you are missing out on some really great stuff if you have ignored PSB for the last 20 years. I would say each of the releases in that time span have weaknesses, but the albums “Fundamental,” “Yes,” and “Electric” include some of my favorite songs that they’ve ever done.
Oh, Elysium! Such highs! Such lows!
Invisible, Leaving, Memory of the Future (the 7” re-do is superior to the album version in my opinion) and Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin but to hear these gems you also have to slog through Winner and Hold On, as well as too many revisits to the territory of How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously (Your Early Stuff, Ego Music).
Invisible and Leaving, however, are two of the best things they have ever written and worth the admission price alone.
Tim – I remember reading mixed reactions [to put it mildly] to “Elysium” but just from reading people’s thoughts, I got the impression that I would be a fan of that album. And the cover was beautiful and differed from the usual PSB feel while still being Farrow product. Niiiice.
If you can find a used one of that disk there’s enough good stuff to make it worth buying. I’d actually love to read a review of yours of that. If they only kept the really solid tracks (and maybe some one or two of the better b-sides) they could have had a really solid Disco 5.
Tim – Don’t hold your breath! I’ve never seen a copy of that one. Like I said, the only used PSB I ever see are plentiful copies of “Bilingual” and “Nightlife.”
Invisible is indeed a fantastic track!
And “Winner” is one of my most detested PSB recordings, I can’t bear to sit through that one.