Pet Shop Boys – Concrete + Battleship Potemkin

January 01, 1970

(Astralwerks)

 

www.astralwerks.com

 

In the better-late-than-never
department, a double-live Pet Shop Boys album, Concrete (7 stars out of 10), first released in England in 2006 is getting a
belated U.S. CD release. Departing from their heavy reliance on synthesized
keyboards and drum machines, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe used the BBC Concert
Orchestra, under Trevor Horn’s supervision, along with a real drummer, to present
their songs at London’s
Mermaid Theatre. (It was for BBC’s Radio 2.)

 

The Boys had already used
orchestration on recordings, including then-new Fundamental whose material is notably featured here. They start off
the concert with a version of the first song they recorded with orchestra,
1988’s “Left to My Own Devices.” They follow it with Tennant departing from his
deadpan delivery to sing in his pleasant, high, near-falsetto voice on a lovely
arrangement of “Rent” that Angelo Badalamenti did for Liza Minnelli on a
Boys-produced album. (Tennant is scrupulous about crediting his arrangers.) The
duo’s romantically bittersweet compositions, lyrically sculpted and melodic
even when Tennant primarily delivers them in a monologue, are perfectly suited
for orchestra. They have an operatic grandeur that is sweeping and sumptuous,
hinting of stormy melodrama but never bombastic or over-the-top (unless that’s
what the Boys want for ironic impact).

 

Concrete features guest vocals on three tracks – Rufus Wainwright does “Casanova in
Hell,” one of the Boys’ wryest lyrics ever; Robbie Williams sings “Jealousy,”
and Frances Barber reprises the terrific version of “Friendly Fire” she
recorded for Closer to Heaven, the
musical the Boys wrote with Jonathan Harvey. There’s also an affecting Diane
Warren composition from Fundamental, “Numb,” that’s remarkable free of the emotional overkill and banal
sentimentality of her stuff for hit movies. The arrangement, with its slowly
flooding strings and choir-like background singers, has a humbling, hushed
solemnity fitting for the mature subject matter – seeking relief from life’s
outrages.

 

Wikipedia says Warren first offered it
to Aerosmith, who have hit with her weaker material like “I Don’t Want to Miss
a Thing.” They rejected it. That says a lot about their taste – as well as the
Boys’. Aerosmith missed a big thing – a better song than they’ve recorded in
years.

 

Pet Shop Boys don’t have the
hits anymore that they used to score in the 1980s (who does?), but they have
become a pop-music institution (at least in England) whose musical standards
are fundamentally, consistently high and innovative.

 

Battleship Potemkin (5 stars out of 10) is a more specialized release. It is an
electronics-and-strings score that the Boys wrote for Sergei Eisenstein’s
classic silent movie about the Russian Revolution, recorded with the Dresdner
Sinfoniker with orchestrations by Torsten Rasch. (One track called “After All,”
with a compelling lyric about Russia’s
ruinous involvement in World War I, is performed live on Concrete. It is overall a successful effort, maybe not quite able
to totally stand alone as a recording without the film to watch, but closer
than many such efforts.

 

DOWNLOAD (from
Concrete): “Rent,” “Numb” STEVEN
ROSEN

 

 

 

 

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