With “Release,” Pet Shop Boys Made Their Laurel Canyon Album Thirty Years Late [part 2]

Pet Shop Boys 2002: Neil as axe god

[…continued from last post]

After the five worst Pet Shop Boys songs I’d ever heard, I was astonished when “The Samurai In Autumn” emerged from the speakers. It proffered a subtle, glitchy, rhumba beat over a classic PSB sustained string patch and it had a haunting two note vocal line running through it with a [sampled] tenor sax hook responding to it. It perfectly embodied an unresolved tension between motorik advancement and utter stasis, with the melody line further elaborated by the “sax.” When the sequenced synth entered the mix I knew it was love.

When Neil finally began singing at the 1:12 mark, the song was a quarter done and I had wondered if it was going to be an instrumental. As it turned out, the minimal, haiku-like lyric [a few too many syllables to be an actual haiku] meant that this song was as close to an instrumental as you could get with without actually crossing that line. This was a swooningly great song in the middle of what was shaping up to be a tough, hard slog of a Pet Shop Boys album experience.

I’m not one of those fans who demands “all bangerz” from Pet Shop Boys. While Disco was foundational to them, let’s not forget that even Chris Lowe had admitted that “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” had some good bits in it. In the last they had pivoted gloriously from the dancefloor to attain some of their loftiest artistic heights as with “Behaviour.” But “The Samurai In Autumn” was the first such song here that was completely in the band’s wheelhouse in what was absolutely a stylistic outlier to alien territory for this seasoned band. In that light, it almost felt like I should almost be ashamed for liking this one so much. The funky strut of the instrumental coda belied my guilt.

Then came “Love Is A Catastrophe” and we were back to square one with a track that almost had me waiting to hear the lyrics for “Suicide Is Painless” issue from Mr. Tennant. Tremolo guitar and a leaden tempo made this one seem even longer than it’s nearly five minutes. Guest player Johnny Marr’s tone in his solo was the only interesting thing happening on this po-faced sulker of a song.

Then “Here” hit like a bolt from the blue and once more, the salvage of this album was a going concern. This one actually sounded like a great PSB ballad, with its sustained solemn choral patches, though I had to suppress a grin as it thought nothing of quoting from the climactic ejactulating “woosh” from Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” at its conclusion.

The next track was a mawkish and mid-seventies as this album would get as “The Night I Fell in Love,” which sounded for all the world like an Anne Murray song injected with incongruous, if gentle, hip hop beats. This was a song no one would listen to for the backing track, which in all honesty, could put one’s teeth on edge. But coupled with this deliberately syrupy brew was a most provocative lyrical payload.

I wasn’t listening too closely at first, but the scenario it offered was that of a young fan sleeping with a hip hop star after a show. There were some very specific details I was picking up on and the next thing I knew, I had to look this one up to see that sort of roman-à-clef was being delivered here. Well, well, well. This was a case of PSB delivering some pointed commentary in the direction of Enimen; someone who I knew almost nothing about. I’ve never heard him. Known he was popular in the Millennial time frame, and was certainly aware of the homophobia he was associated with. Tennant delivered the lyrical knife in the middle eight like a matador taking down a bull.

When I asked
why have I heard so much
about him being charged
with homophobia and stuff
he just shrugged…[beat]

The Night I Fell In Love

The final track was as on target to a 1973 Laurel Canyon sound as possible. Gently strummed tremolo guitar, real bass and percussion vied with sampled flutes and glockenspiel and Neil Tennant at his most empathetic. “You Choose” was one of those deceptively willowy tunes that on the third listen one begins paying attention to the lyric only to find a song of quiet devastation was actually being administered.

The scenario of why a love affair might not work out was economically yet incisively put forth; bereft of any anguished braying. His detached, low key, delivery was crucial to the commensurate power of his words’ blows. The resulting three minute ballad was as matter-of-factly shattering as anything I’ve ever heard in the Pet Shop Boys canon. And now I’m in awe of this song.

Lick your wounds
Buy your booze
You won’t get drunk by accident
You’ll choose
Don’t blame him
for refusing your bid
He didn’t decide to love
You did

You Choose

BONUS DISC

The 2002 US edition of “Release” was unique in that it has a 2nd disc of additional material similar to the “Further Listening” reissue series that had been released immediately prior to this album. The second disc here had two mixes of the first single with six other songs; some of them B-sides that came out on overseas singles. As there was barely any “there” there on “Home + Day,” the ambient mix sees me in danger of nodding off if I listen while driving. It was already as minimal and reductive a song as they’d ever committed to disc and putting pressure on the brake pedal didn’t work for me.

Unlike its typically fantastic PSB B-side!” Sexy Northerner” was a musical portrait of a rakish type that Neil might observe in Manchester. A beer drinker, but “at least he doesn’t smoke.” The pulsating bassline and a hint of squelchy synths on this one made it a definite keeper. There was a US promo 12″ mix of this that sells for way too much money that I wouldn’t mind hearing. I especially liked the line about wanting an interesting job, like maybe graphic design. Oh, yes, I’m here to tell you it’s all glamor and money!

“Always” hit a reliable PSB ballad target. It was the sort of song that could have been on “Behaviour” if it had cooked in the oven a little longer. A slow version of the title track to their “Closer To Heaven” musical was a little diffuse. A few too many repeated bars of the same musical phrases felt like the sort of reliance on padding that made me go off of PSB remixes in the mid 90s to begin with. I might be more interested in a succinct edit of this airy ballad.

“Nightlife” was another “Home + Dry” B-side of distinction. It was as perky a song as I’ve ever heard from The Boys, with unusual, breathy, falsetto singing from Mr. Tennant. Upbeat of tempo yet the furthest thing from overbearing. The vibe on this one was very inviting and it played like a mantra of clubbing that delivered a subtle euphoria.

“Friendly Fire” was a straightforward piano ballad and sampled strings and oboe. Apparently it was another song from the “Closer To Heaven” musical, possibly given an orchestral treatment here as I’ve picked up that the project was extremely club oriented. Though I have to say that the pithy lyrics were right at home in the subtle melodrama of the musical setting.

I recognized the title of the cover of Raze’s “Break 4 Love” that the band recorded with Tribal House DJ Peter Rauhofer producing. The 3″30 US 7″ mix is what we have here and it’s the first Rauhofer mix I’ve got in the Record Cell that was under nine-twelve minutes long! What was that line about always keep ’em wanting more?

Finally, the answer to the question I hadn’t asked occurred with the Blank+ Jones remix of “Home + Dry.” I had thought that the LP mix was slight and the even more languid Ambient mix was actually soporific! What would be my reaction to a pumped up, high-BPM TurboDisco club version of the song? Uuuuuh, no! This was exactly the sort of dehumanized, piston-pumping, maschinenmusik that put me off of dance music in the 90s.


I have to say that my modus operandi of listening to anything that I plan on reviewing on PPM at least 8-15 times sure paid off in spades for this album, since I’ve got to say that on first blush, apart from the immediately winning gambit of “The Samurai In Autumn,” this was what seemed to be a seriously underwhelming Pet Shop Boys album. Moreover, some of the musical tropes they indulged in here [possibly for the first and last time] were actually repellent to my ear!

We all knew that Neil had a sensitive, possibly hippy side from his early days, but he’d seemed to have gotten over that! Little did we know that he carried it inside, waiting for the latency to manifest. And here it did. When electronic musicians pick up acoustic guitars, it always comes to a bad end. It’s possibly even worse when a lot of what we’re hearing were sampled guitars programmed on synths! A worst case scenario where two wrongs certainly don’t make a right.

But on the upside, this experiment in coloring far outside of the Pet Shop Boys outlines did result in what has now become one of my very favorite songs by the band ever; even in spite of its fraudulent methodologies. “You Choose” was a song with incredible impact that couched an emotional gut punch within its summertime hippy vibe like an iron fist in the proverbial velvet glove.

At first listen I thought that this album was destined for the discard pile, but now, for all of its copious flaws, there’s enough pure gold to tip the scales in the direction of reprieve. So this is the current PSB checklist of what’s in the Record Cell:

  • Please
  • Disco
  • Actually
  • Introspective
  • Behaviour
  • Discography
  • Very/Relentless
  • Disco 2
  • Alternative
  • Bilingual
  • Nightlife
  • Closer To Heaven
  • Release
  • Disco 3
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Fundamental
  • Concrete
  • Disco 4
  • Yes
  • The Most Incredible Thing
  • Elysium
  • Format
  • Electric
  • Super
  • Hotspot

That’s still a lot of albums to hear, though the “Disco”series should perhaps be snipped free. I should mention that I consider all of the CDs I do own by PSB to be a remarkably consistent collection of high quality songs, save for much of “Release.” It was clearly the runt of the litter at the end of the day.

-30-

About postpunkmonk

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18 Responses to With “Release,” Pet Shop Boys Made Their Laurel Canyon Album Thirty Years Late [part 2]

  1. I’m glad you found enough there to keep it around. I find that a lot of their later albums (except for the project-specific ones) do a fair amount of (enjoyable) retreading and reworking; a perfect example is their team-up with Soft Cell last year for “Purple Zone” (the video has the four of them round a pub table, which was a wonderful touch, as was Marc as an ice-cream trolley operator).

    I appreciate that they try some different things, and that not all of that works … but of course they can never really stray far from their gay-disco prison; it would be like Erasure going death-metal, or the B-52s going free-form jazz.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Andy B says:

    I’m a big PSB fan. I have all their albums. Their first four albums proper are of a high standard to my ears. However ‘Bilingual’ and ‘Nightlife’ just aren’t as consistent to me. ‘Release’ was a shock on first hearing and it hasn’t got much better over time. Disco 3 is a far better album and followed not long after ‘Release’. I thought ‘Fundamental’ and ‘Yes’ were the best albums they had recorded in a long time. ‘Elysium’ is a step down but has its moments. We then get two albums in ‘Electric’ and ‘Super’ that really disappoint me. I don’t like the production and I don’t like most of the tracks. Although ‘Hotspot’ uses the same producer it contains far better songs and is definitely worth getting hold of. As mentioned by somebody elsewhere the final track is a bit naff to many though. If you hear it you will know what I mean.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      AndyB – I got “Fundamental” a few years back and really liked it a lot. I should get around to some forensic listening and put my thoughts down. It was a real treat to hear a great Trevor Horn album again for the first time in…decades? Trev went mainstream in the 90s and lost me. I mean…Rod Stewart?! But he really appreciated working with PSB; finding their company in the making of the record excellent. Which is half of the potential slog for a producer.

      Like

    • Tim says:

      There is a Blade remix of Wedding in Berlin that salvages the song, it’s now my go to for that track.
      I kinda feel bad, they wrote that song for someone’s wedding, put it on an album and it’s easily one of their most derided tracks ever. Feel bad for the people it was written for to see all the guff it gets, that’s gotta stink.

      Like

  3. Olivers_Army_Radio_Show says:

    Thanks for this, I kept up with PSB until nightlife so will have another delve after reading this. Please remains my favourite still.

    Like

  4. Echorich says:

    Release is certainly an unfulfilling album, but I feel like the PSB stock went up in a big way.
    Fundamental is dynamic.
    Yes is filled with sparkling moments and a new found exuberance – thanks to Xenomania. Track: The Way It Used To Be
    Elysium is album that exposes the many shades and colors of PSB. Track: Requiem In Denim and Leopardskin
    Electric is just that – electric! Track: Vocal
    Super is PSB in day-glo on the streets of London and Los Angeles. Track: The Pop Kids
    Hotspot is my soundtrack to Covid-19 year 1. Track: Monkey Business

    Maybe I’m a super-fan, maybe I give them way more time than most, but Pet Shop Boys have consistently made so many right moves over the last 38 years, that they can be forgiven for the very occasional stumbles.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – As a “disappointing” album in their canon, I have to say that it was miles better than a “Street Fighting Years.” With “You Choose” I think they hit their target dead-on with great success. My big question is this: I still haven’t heard “Bilingual” or “Nightlife.” What do you think of those in comparison? As I said, they are the only plentiful PSB albums in my environment. Worth a shot?

      Like

      • Echorich says:

        I think you must have both Bilingual and Nightlife. Bilingual is full of gorgeous 90s Dance/Pop and Dance Floor Fillers. It is an album obsessed with hedonism. It ends with Saturday Night Forever, one my absolute favorite PSB tracks. The track Up Against It reads like a cautionary tale/reflection on the trials and tribulations of growing up gay in a society still not ready to accept and understand.
        I feel Nightlife is among their most accomplished work. Opening with the cinematic thumper that is For Your Own Good. And the duet with Kylie on a number that is centerpice of their musical Closer To Heaven – pure bliss. Then there is the PSB ode to NYC and the Studio era, New York City Boy. Matching The Village People at their own camp, 20+ years on.

        Like

  5. Gareth says:

    As a confirmed, and long time PSB fan, I can safely say this is my least favourite album. At the time they said they wanted to “present themselves as musicians” and try something different. I can’t blame them for getting bored, but this whole concept was a misstep.

    Personally I really like Home and Dry and Samurai is palatable, but the rest you can keep. All of the good material from this era crept out as b-sides or on Disco 3. Speaking of which…

    Believe me, if you aren’t into 90’s club mixes you really really….really, don’t want to hear the US promo 12″ of Sexy Northerner. The main mix from that disc is available on Disco 3 which I think was a direct response to Release. My theory is that the boys saw Release was going down like a cup of cold sick and put out some electronic (and better) material to compensate. I listen to Disco 3 occasionally but not Release.

    In Sexy Northerner Neil is actually referencing people who “came down from the north”. The people could be from Manchester, but they are definitely being observed “down south”.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gareth – Welcome to the comments! I guess it was time to try the obvious and inevitable after that long. Especially after going full club so deeply for their musical…which I didn’t have a clue about until I got this album. Thank you for the warning, re: “Sexy Northerner [US promo mixes].” I don’t feel like revisiting the 90s phenomenon of paying too much money for…
      patsy on techno

      It’s what got me off the PSB bus in the first place! By the way, this week, I have been finally playing all of the PSB singles on 12″ that I bought back in the ’86-’88 period. What an utter class act they were.

      Like

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