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Talking ’bout pop music: Pet Shop Boys and James

  • What year is it again? One look at the 2016 Primavera Sound line-up – Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Sigur Ros, PJ Harvey, Air, Suede, Dinosaur Jr – and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 2006. Heritage rock and pop acts are trending hard this year.

    That line-up is typical of the live festival scene right now – front loaded by acts at least five albums into their careers.

    They also happen to form the core of this reviewer’s daily music intake. Regular readers will know of my inability to relate to those that listen only to the finest sounding jazz, classical and girls with guitars. “It’s not you, it’s me,” is how I rationalise it.

    At the more audiophile-approved end of my music taste sit artists like Johnny Cash and Nils Frahm, at the opposite end there’s pure, unadulterated pop music. Pop music that is neither Bieber nor Beyonce but stuff that I struggle to nail down with a single phrase.

    Interests in electronica and techno come with their own in-built descriptors – handy – but how to categorise Bowie, Talking Heads, Neil Young, Tom Waits, LCD Soundsystem, Thin White Rope, The House Of Love, Radiohead, Suede and PJ Harvey in a 10-second elevator-type pitch without actually reeling ‘em off one by one?

    How about ‘Pop songs that’ve been kicked hard enough that they walk with a limp?’ That might indeed do it.

    primavera2016

    Talking of which…

    Pulling rabbits from studio hats this year are veteran popsters the Pet Shop Boys. After thirty-five years in the electronic pop business you’d possibly assume they’d now be a spent force, sipping on Pernod and lemonade out on the lawn of some imaginary music industry retirement home.

    But no. After a mid-noughties slump that brought us some of the most ponderous and (frankly) dullest albums of their career, Neil Tennant (61!) and Chris Lowe (56!) are now two albums deep into a trilogy with wizard producer Stuart Price.

    2016’s Super builds on the day-glo techy blueprint of 2013’s Electric – their best work since 1993’s Very – but it’s shorter on introspection and bigger on synth-driven hooks. “The Dictator Decides” features Tennant’s trademark wry wordplay whilst “Inner Sanctum” and “Pazzo!”, vocals trimmed to bare minimum by Price, wouldn’t sound out of place in any self-respecting EDM DJ’s set.

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    Pet Shop Boys’ extensive catalogue shows us just how dynamic range compression has impacted a single artist’s output down the years. If tumbling DR scores spanning four decades trouble you then do NOT click here.

    Note how Super scores a bone-crushing average DR of 6? That’s not great but a good album is a good album. We accept a favourite’s sonic limitations and enjoy purely because it’s chock full of great pop songs – one of life’s purest pleasures.

    A lesson from which many a moribund audio show exhibitor might learn. Too many let the tail wag the dog, and too often; audio gear determining music preferences when it should really be the other way around.

    Think the black stuff will save you from Super’s tack-flat dynamics? Not yet it won’t. The initial run of Super has been pressed to white vinyl and only serves to remind us of coloured wax’s reputation as a SQ killer. I’m on my second copy – slightly better than the first but side one closer “Pazzo!” still sounds like it has been sprayed top-to-toe with a translucent goop. Ugh.

    Stream Super on Spotify here, Tidal here or buy a FLAC download from Bleep.com here.

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    Another ‘heritage act’ doing nicely right now (thank you very much) are UK indie-rock-popsters James. They formed in 1982, two years after the Pet Shop Boys.

    Brits might know James best for the chart success of single “Sit Down” – it reached number 2 in the UK singles chart in 1991 but only after the band upped its guitar content and shortened the song two years after its initial 1989 release.

    Americans will probably know James for their Billboard smash “Laid”, the titular track from a largely darker, weirder album produced by Brian Eno. Laid’s original release scores DR13; it’d play nicely as audio demo music. We spin it because we dig the songs more than we think about its sound…don’t we?

    Laid remains this commentator’s favourite James album to date despite some very strong competition from lesser known 1999 album Millionaires. Drop your finger on the latter to witness lead singer Tim Booth’s pulling endless earworms from a bottomless well.

    james_back_CD

    Seventeen years later and Booth and co. should, like the Pet Shop Boys, also be critically and commercially dead and buried. Their latest long player Girl At The End Of The World (the band’s 14th) says otherwise. It knocked Adele’s 25 off its UK Number 1 album perch a few weeks back. An indie rock David to soulful/less pop music’s Goliath?

    Like Millionaires, the hooks on Girl At The End Of The World are simply irresistible. And like Super, one could pick radio singles from at least two thirds of its twelve cuts. James work with fewer synths and more guitars but what a thrill ride of a pop record.

    Spotify it here, Tidal it here. Lossless download? Not that I can find. Order the CD from Amazon.com and rip it.

    These two albums are a lot of fun. They’re not for everyone but that’s not necessarily the point. No – on my mind when I listen to these records is the disconnect between this…

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    and this:

    shower_sing

    Further information: What is Super | We Are James

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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