Black and White TitleWell, it’s been a while but it’s great to finally hear some new material from Natalie Duncan. I’m guessing that the last couple of years haven’t been a bundle of laughs; after the superb debut album, “Devil in Me”, the hype which surrounded her can’t have been easy to deal with. You can call this an inspired guess if you like, but I have a strong impression that what Natalie really cares about is making music and the music business hoop-la surrounding it is something she can happily live without. Anyway, following her split with the Verve label last year she’s had the chance to do her own thing and the “Black and White” EP is her first commercial release in over two years.

The blindingly obvious difference between “Devil in Me” and the new EP is that the traditional instruments and production techniques used by Joe Henry on the album have been replaced by more contemporary electronic techniques, resulting in a very different overall sound, where the distinct voices of the instruments are often blurred by heavy reverb to create an almost ambient background for Natalie’s vocals to cut through.

The title track opens with mournful keyboard chords (harmonium, maybe) leading into sampled backing vocals (more of those later) and builds up steadily with straightforward percussion and very heavy bass as a story of style over substance unfolds (‘They’re gonna love you in black and white’). “Oh my God” has a lo-fi feel using retro samples and surface noise effects to create a backdrop vocal samples pitched up and down to form part of the overall arrangement with Natalie’s voice thrown further back in the mix, becoming just another part of the arrangement; very atmospheric.

Elysium” begins with conventional instruments; the long, melancholy keyboard chords and a detuned guitar and what sounds like a heavily-reverbed steel pan. There’s also some more huge, rumbling bass. The theme of pitch-changed samples runs through this song as well, as a counterpoint to the close-miked lead vocal. It’s a very personal song, particularly in the double-time middle section and is simultaneously disturbing and uplifting.

Ripples” opens with percussion samples and steel pan again, and that familiar vibrant bass which you feel rather than hear. It’s another bitter-sweet relationship song which is probably best summed-up in a line from the coda: ‘Holding on to an empty hand, the world moves past us as we stand.’ It’s another haunting performance.

It’s difficult to say if this is a new direction for Natalie Duncan or if it’s a period of experimentation; either way, the combination of trip-hop samples and ambience with twentieth-first century percussion and sampling techniques works really well with the songs on this EP. Whether her flawless voice is front and centre or being warped as part of the backing track, these four tracks show that the songwriting is still of the highest quality and, despite a couple of years out of the limelight, Natalie Duncan is still a prodigious talent and any new material she releases is worth listening to. Welcome back.

“Black and White” is out now on Spotify.

 

Electric‘Return to form’ can sometimes be a cruel phrase when applied to an artist usually following a long period when attempts at a experimenting and self -expression are regarded as not working; when it’s finally time to ‘give the people what they want’, especially when the artist in question is finally happy with their new found creative freedom. It’s also a phrase which may have been overused in association with the Pet Shop Boys over the last decade or two. I’m reluctant to use it here as initially “Electric”, their twelfth  studio album, feels more like one of their semi-regular ‘Disco’ excursions rather than a new album proper.  There are only nine tracks, two of which are instrumental, with almost every track being at least 5 minutes long; there are no slow songs, but there is a ballad. But it’s much more than that, these are all new compositions, not remixes, and bears closest resemblance to 1988’s ‘Introspective’  which was an exceptional collection of long, newly-written at the time, dance-orientated songs.  “Electric” also contains some of the most PSB-‘type’ songs the duo have released in a very long time and with Stuart Price’s bombastic, detailed and instantly gratifying production this is an album that fans who may have drifted away in recent years will feel instantly and overwhelmingly connected with.

“Axis” is an instrumental, extended intro, sounding very much like of a mid-eighties TV theme, something butch, as imagined by Bobby O and Harold Faltermeyer; it’s warm and full sounding and is where the album title comes from.  “Bolshy” follows, with its emphasis on the Russian Bolshevik rather than general stroppiness, and is the track which really launches the album with its house piano, familiar melody patterns and sarcastic attitude. Midpoint the vocal track sticks on the ‘O’ of Bolshio and a familiar cowbell sticks to the beat and acid house squiggles start to spiral out and take over. “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” could have been a worry with the album peaking too early, an unwarranted concern as it turns out. With a filtered intro very much like Madonna’s “Hung Up”, also produced by Price, strings saw before a twee, archetypal British sample floats around, and then thump, we’re off. Like the best tracks on “Electric”, “Bourgeois” has a twin with an earlier PSB classic and in this case it’s the mighty “Left To My Own Devices”; if it doesn’t quite match the level of brilliance of that track then it comes pretty close.  ‘I’m exploring the outer limits of boredom, moaning periodically, just a full time lonely layabout, that’s me’ is Neil Tennant’s admission as, in a heightened version of himself, he manages to refer to Tony Benn, Karl Marx and uses the word schadenfreude all in the same song.  A male choir crashes in a la “Go West” and it’s this one track that both grounds and dictates the overall sound and scale of “Electric”.

“Fluorescent”, one of the best tracks, is moodier; minor in key with an ascending synth melody that constantly threatens to turn into “Fade to Grey” and containing some of the best lyrics on an album packed with them (‘I can’t deny you’ve made your mark with the helicopters and the occasional oligarch…every scandal has its price’) with one of the PSB favourite themes of international glamour and clandestine lives led at night continuing after they were first introduced on the couple’s debut album from 1985, ‘‘Please’. “Electric”’s non- ballad, ballad is the thumping, squally  “Last to Die”, a cover version of a Bruce Springsteen song which I’ve never heard before  but here sounds very much like a Pet Shop Boys original; pompous, sad, sincere and just a very good pop song.

Aside from “Bourgeois”, the two very big hitters are saved until last. “Thursday” is essentially “West End Girls”, sonically definitely, with Chris Lowe’s monotone chant of ‘Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday’ leading into a brilliantly realised, working class, blokey rap and middle eight by Example.  Listen to the way he pronounces ‘memories’ for example (excuse pun); it was always about the details. “Vocal” is the most euphoric and obvious track on “Electric” and plays to many of the clichés of the current EDM craze with its big, cheesy, rave hook which is straight from 1999, see in particular Felix’s massive anthem “Don’t You Want Me”. But it’s the combination of the audaciousness of this sound coupled with the themes of nostalgia and narcissism (‘I like the lead singer, he’s lonely and strange….It’s in the music, it’s in the song, and everyone I hoped would be here has come along’) and also the subject of music itself that makes it such a success; it’s moving and it has history.  The Pet Shop Boys have been making records like this for nearly 30 years; you can jump up and down to it and it will leave its mark somewhere deep.

So in 2013 the Pet Shop Boys sound an awful lot like they did whilst they were at their peak in 1988  and it appears as though it’s very much business as usual after it was strongly hinted that the business could finally be about to close down completely (last year’s “Elysium”). You could argue, and many will claim, that it’s the inevitable “return to form” then, but the PSBs form should not really be called in to account.  All of their releases have merit, just in varying degrees, and their decision to do this seems a natural one; the whiff of cynicism is not detectable. In Stuart Price, Lowe and Tennant have found a producer who sounds like the lost third member and on “Electric” he has delivered his most on-the money, consistent production to date on some of the most accessible and immediate songs the duo have written in years. Whether or not it buys new fans, younger fans, is debatable and will remain to be seen but there are enough people who will rightly adore this sparking, intelligent and brilliant pop record and it does feel as though this album was made especially for them.

Product DetailsI think it’s safe to say that the last essential album that the Pet Shop Boys released was probably their best. “Very” was released in 1993, that’s nearly 20 years ago, and just for top-notch, quality songwriting alone (one of the many factors that made this such a perfect and revered collection of pop songs) nothing they’ve released since has come close to matching this, their masterpiece, or  the 4 albums that preceded it. Pet Shop Boys are, after all, a pop act and pop acts by their very nature have a sell by date; pop culture is predominately dictated by youth culture and youth is all too fleeting.  So what do the Pet Shop Boys sound like in 2012? Pretty much the same as they have done anywhere in the last decade; nice but far from necessary.

2009’s ‘Yes‘ was produced by Xenomania (Girls Aloud, Kylie, Cher) and magic was not created in the way that you may have hoped for from what should have been a pretty much dream collaboration.  It was streamlined, safe and, bar a few highlights, dull. This time LA resident and R’n’B and hip hop producer (Kanye West, Jay Z), Andrew Dawson is on production duties -- how does that sound for an interesting meeting of musical minds? Well, just don’t expect the unexpected. The best and most surprising thing about this collaboration is that Dawson, on the more successful tracks, has made the Pet Shop Boys sound like, well, the Pet Shop Boys. So much so that in some places it’s shocking. “A Face Like That” incorporates cowbells, synth lines, electronic hand-claps; all deployed to incredibly similar effect in 1986’s “Paninaro” (known to millions in its remixed form as the theme to the iconic 1990’s TV show, the Clothes Show). It’s unnerving and initially provides a huge adrenaline rush, even Neil’s vocals sound unchanged from over 20 years ago. Problem is the song itself is ok but nothing more and once you’ve got past the initial bombast it ultimately has the effect of you desperately needing to hear the brilliance of the original that it oddly mimics. It’s going backwards not forward. Without a doubt the album this most resembles though is 1996’s “Bilingual” which sonically encompassed Balearic beats, sunny sad handbag house and musical theatre (later versions of the album included a straight forward, high energy cover of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”). It was uneven and was the sound of the Pet Shop Boys losing their bite for the very first time in a decade and the same themes are covered here.

Your Early Stuff” and “Ego Music” are funny, self referencing and ironic; the absolute essence of the Pet Shop Boys. “Ego Music” could have been brilliant but is undermined by a predictable, bleeping electronic soundtrack when it should have been manic and crazed much like “Yesterday When I Was Mad” from “Very” which it resembles, or tries to at least.  “Leaving”  is a crisp, multi-layered  mid-tempo track with a nostalgic instrumental break referencing Nu Shooz’s 1985 hit “I Can’t Wait” and is lovely and affecting as is the ode to the fifties gay man, ballad “Invisible”. “Winner” however, a disastrous decision for first single, is an attempt at lighters aloft power pop and is best regarded as conceptual. “Hold On” sounds like it was written for an assembly of  six year olds singing about global warming, bizarre but pointless, and the muzzy, bland “Give It A Go” could be a cheesy theme tune written for corporate away day team building event.

The best song on “Elysium” however, where everything finally comes together, is the steely grey “Everything Means Something” all  minor chords in the verses and major in the chorus and a dubby reverb on Neil’s vocal creating an unsettling effect. It’s interesting, diverting and brilliant and is very Pet Shop Boys (excuse the pun), and by that I mean what the Pet Shop Boys were once and judging by this one song could still be today, maybe. However, on the majority of the songs in this collection, Neil and Chris sound like they are going through the motions; the ideas may be there still but the realisation is not.