[HOT TRACK]From change comes growthChildren are told from an early age that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The British synth-pop band the Pet Shop Boys has hewn to that proverb for more than two decades, and would seem to be the last band to embrace change. But the duo takes up the challenge in "Release."
It was 1981 when Neil Tennant, then a journalist for the magazine Smash Hits, met Chris Lowe in a London synthesizer shop. After they agreed that rock was detestable and synth-dance music was the hot thing, they formed the Pet Shop Boys. The band quickly gained recognition in the 1980s new-wave scene with Lowe's subdued but catchy computerized beats and Tennant's distinctively dispassionate yet endearing vocals. Over the ensuing years, with its urban, eccentric image, the duo cemented its role as the standard-bearer of British synth-pop. While the sound remained essentially the same, the group's experimental spirit was channeled more to its avante-garde music videos.
But for "Release," Lowe and Tennant decided to enlist the strumming of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, whom they had worked with on a side project. "The decision to not stick to dance music made us free," Lowe said of the new album.
Guitars on a Pet Shop Boys album? Sounds like treachery. But if so, it's a sweet betrayal. Marr contributes on 9 of the 10 tracks, and his handiwork melds nicely with Lowe's techno-wizardry.
The album opens with "Home and Dry," a warm-up to the new style. By the fourth track, "London," the duo is ready to display the new style, as Tennant's vocals suddenly show emotion and excitement. No. 6, "The Samurai in Autumn," seems like a return to vintage Pet Shop Boys when it opens with a sustained, electronic mid-tempo beat. But the tune builds into an experiment with ambient, mesmerizing sounds, with the vocals taking a backseat. The zenith of the stylistic shift comes with the next track, "Love Is a Catastrophe," when Lowe's synthesizer defers to Marr's slow, moody guitar. And Tennant sings with all his heart, quite effectively.
But perhaps the most significant song is "The Night I Fell in Love," about a fictional one-night stand with the rapper Eminem. Tennant said it's only a fantasy, but if Eminem can pass off offensive material as "fantasy," so can the Pet Shop Boys.
By diverging slightly from its strategy of success, the Pet Shop Boys show it's good to do a little fixing up now and then, or at least use some different tools; the "it" ends up bigger and more beautiful.
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