Now this one’s going to be a surprise. Unusually for a Closet Classic, it charted fairly high on its release (six in the UK) and was certified gold but “Results” is one of those albums that seems to have been unfairly dismissed as a product of its time. To many people it seemed like a bit of a strange combination; Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were at the peak of their popularity and Liza Minnelli (who had recorded a few albums) was much better known as a nightclub and Broadway singer and the actress who gave a stunning performance as Sally Bowles in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret”, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s short novel, “Goodbye to Berlin”. So far, so good.
The album’s lead single, “Losing my Mind”, was being played to death on the radio and that, as well as a recommendation from a musician friend who was a huge Pet Shop Boys fan made me go out and buy the album. It’s no exaggeration to say that I played it solidly in the car and at work (the advantages of working in a music bar) for a month and I can still quite happily listen to it from start to finish now. So what’s so special apart from the fact that it’s Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys?
The album opens in the way you might expect with an uptempo Tennant-Lowe song, “I Want You Now” followed by “Losing my Mind”, a Stephen Sondheim song from the musical “Follies”. You can’t accuse the team of sticking to the original arrangement too closely; it’s a 119bpm monster with Fairlights on steroids and Liza Minnelli belting out the vocal. The original is wistfully obsessive, but Liza sounds like she’s delighted to be losing her mind; bring it on and double helpings please.
The following three songs are Tennant-Lowe originals, but that’s about the only common factor. It’s a tough call, but “If There was Love” is probably the most audacious song on the album, with paranoid and prescient lyrics (‘Men of affairs, women with power, satellites talking to clutter our lives’), sax from Courtney Pine and a recitation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 during the coda. “So Sorry I Said” is played at a very un-PSB tempo of 70bpm with a breathy Liza vocal and a bit of programming help from C J Mackintosh. “Don’t Drop Bombs” is back to house tempo again with a spoken verse/sung chorus structure and a completely mad programmed cowbell percussion track.
“Twist in My Sobriety” takes the Tanita Tikaram original, gives it hip-hop beats, a rap intro taken from “Liza With a Z” (Ebb and Kander again), creating a truly original take on a classic song (and, yes, Tanita loves it). “Rent” reverses the process of “Losing my Mind” by taking an uptempo PSB original and slowing it down to ballad speed while using a string arrangement by Angelo Badalamenti to create drama and pathos underneath a close-miked and perfectly-controlled vocal.
The album’s final cover (also released as a single) is “Love Pains”, which was a hit for Yvonne Elliman ten years earlier and was also covered in 1989 by Viola Wills and the evergreen Hazell Dean. It’s a house stomper, which also received the the obligatory remix treatment from Steve “Silk” Hurley, and features some real guitar from British session player JJ Belle. The verse and pre-chorus feature Liza’s voice solo and upfront in the mix, while in the chorus she has to compete with Katie Kissoon, Carole Kenyon and Tessa Niles, wringing out every last bit of emotion. You even get a trucker’s gear change thrown in for good measure.
“Tonight is Forever” feels like the second act of “Rent” with similar lyrical themes, and strings arranged and conducted by Anne Dudley sounding more lush and less overtly dramatic than Angelo Badalamenti’s work. Like “Rent”, this would be perfectly at home in a Sondheim show. The final track, “I Can’t Say Goodnight” is the joker in the pack; it’s the only song which relies mainly on traditional rock and pop instruments and sounds like an updated 60s American pop song with a breathy vocal and guitar and sax courtesy of JJ Belle and Courtney Pine again. Lyrically, it’s not a bad way to end an album.
So, what it is about this album that really got under my skin? Well, it’s the only time that Liza Minnelli has really stepped out of the chanteuse comfort zone, and what a way to do it; forget that acoustic piano and complicated orchestral arrangements and let’s have full-on programmed beats and wall-to-wall Fairlights. You could be cynical and say that it was a marketing ploy to get even further into the gay market, but “Results” is too full of joy and the sound of musicians having fun and doing everything to excess to be a clinical exercise. It’s the sound of two great songwriters and arrangers giving a wonderful singer a contemporary sound and pushing their own boundaries a little at the same time. There may only be ten songs, but they’re all highly-polished little gems.
The definitive ‘Kylie Sound’; it’s what Kylie herself and pop obsessives everywhere are desperate to identify, capture and then immortalise and never has this felt more apparent than on “Kiss Me Once”, her twelfth studio album. Her biggest hits are studies in expert song writing, of-the-moment production and perfect execution. From “Hand On my Heart” to “Slow”, “Spinning Around” to “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”, all effortless sounding pop from an artist who has more than proved her worth as a leader in the field. This album sees her again working with some of the most de rigueur and established writers and producers available with reclusive pop extraordinaire herself, Sia Furler, curating the entire project. Kylie’s first album for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella has not come cheap it, seems. Three albums worth of songs have been recorded over the album’s two year creation and many have deemed not worthy of inclusion. For example none of the collaborations with Minogue’s new partner on the reality talent show The Voice, will.i.am, are here, a cause for celebration for some. So what exactly has made the finishing line and does the Kylie Sound of 2014 live up to some of her previous heady years? Yes and no.
The first half of “Kiss Me Once” is indeed the most problematic and some of it is best got out of the way as quickly as possible before the really good stuff starts to cut through and rise to the sheeny, shiny surface. Lead single “Into the Blue” is smart and solid -- very much a ‘Kylie’ song -- and contains a string section that is uplifting and vocal phrasing and beats that are certainly in keeping with current chart fodder. It is however disappointing in its overall niceness and lack of originality. Kylie’s best songs have also incorporated the unexpected with the familiar and for a song leading us into a new era it is not exactly encouraging. There are then two songs which both, at Sia’s insistence, contain the word ‘sex’ (a third follows later of a different standard entirely) and almost suggest the onset of a concept album. “Sexy Love” comes first and is a wholly derivative Daft Punk/Chic/”Holiday” hybrid which has tons of sunny Kylie enthusiasm in the place where the song should be. “Sexercise”, a Furler co-write, follows and is the most cynical three minutes here. It’s a focus-grouped, trend-chasing attempt at maintaining her Grindr demographic in addition to securing just one more USA hit, urban style. It’s horrible and if you liked Madonna’s “Hard Candy” weaker moments that it may just be your favourite.
Pharrell Williams, currently as ubiquitous a producer as Sia is writer, thankfully comes to the rescue with “I Was Gonna Cancel”. Seems Williams understands the Kylie DNA better than he did Madonna’s. A joyous, confident and supremely carefree disco tune that has a nice pinch of ‘fuck you!’ about it. With its “I Want Your Love” bassline and bells that resemble Blondie’s “Rapture”, this is the first song here where Kylie sounds like you might expect her to given the diverse talent that features here. “Feels So Good” is airy, electronic pop that is both enveloping and aloof in its purpose. It’s a cover version of the Tom Aspaul song “Indiana”, produced by new kid on the block MNEK, with its dreamy chord progression and Kylie’s translucent vocals is one of the best things here. Ariel Rechtshaid of HAIM and Sky Ferreira fame ups the ante further on the tense and metallic “If Only”. Vocal samples are slowed down and sped up and disorientate and muddle and the drums pound like a sci-fi “Hounds of Love”. Truly dynamic and modern sounding with Minogue’s coolly enunciated,heartbreaking admission -- ‘if I set you free and you actually came back to me…if only’. The final song in the sex trilogy “Les Sex” is another triumph. Written by the brilliant and underrated female electro star MDNR, it is a music box sweet and then a squelching and whacking camp delight.
Enrique Iglesias, following The Hurts and Neil Tennant before him, is allocated duetting honours on the deceiving ballad “Beautiful”. It’s deceptive because of its highly vocodered vocals and soulless machines suggesting something macabre and narcotic, when it is in fact excruciatingly sentimental and dull; a low point indeed. “Fine” is a handbag house type affair with lyrics suggesting a positive outlook equals a positive life cliché. It’s not the most adventurous song Kylie has ever made and like a lot of the songs here (see also “Million Miles”) it does a perfunctory job of producing workman-like album tracks. This leaves the one other Sia Furler penned song, the title track, “Kiss Me Once”. Given Sia’s song-writing style which is now becoming recognisable – dots can be joined that connect “Diamonds” to “Perfume” to “Pretty Hurts” – “Kiss Me Once” is unmistakable only as a Kylie song. Lush and dreamy, romantic and multi-coloured, it will be become a favourite for many. Kylie herself sounds re-assuring and warm and the bells and the beats that surround her balance out any concerns of mawkishness. It is a performance and song that could have come from the best of Minogue’s PWL years, the Cathy Dennis sessions of “Fever” or her first album for Deconstruction; a Kylie Minogue song for all seasons, beautifully realised.
If there is a comparison to be made between this and another of Kylie’s albums then it would be 2007’s “X”, another album that suffered from a long gestation period with many songs being recorded with a myriad of producers and writers and then a patchy final track-listing that lacked cohesion and quality control. Like “X”, “Kiss Me Once” also features some of the best material that Minogue has put her name to but also some of the worse. Only on her best but not most successful album, 2009’s “Aphrodite” (executive producer, the extraordinary Stuart Price) was this problem averted with a collection of expertly judged songs that formed a tight and unified vision of pop superiority. There is always a degree of good will placed at Kylie Minogue’s tiny feet, she appears loved by many in an industry that excels in back biting and a desire for always younger, fresh talent and a general sense that the UK, her biggest audience, do not want to see her suffer or to fail. ‘Kiss Me Once’ is not going to change that and is a crowd pleasing but uneven effort at maintaining her status as pop’s eternal princess. Her more interesting songs, of which only a couple appear here, have always hinted at a darker and more introspective and experimental Kylie; maybe it’s time now for her to embrace this side and allow us more than just the glimpse that she’s permitted over her 27 year tenure.
‘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.
The enigmatic, publicity-shy Sally Shapiro continues in the same musical vein as her two previous albums, the somewhat disappointing “My Guilty Pleasure” and her, considered by some to be classic, debut album 2006’s shimmering “Disco Romance”. Shapiro is in love with Italo disco and in particular the fragile, melancholic vocals of the genre but on this album other influences, some good and some not so good, start to come through. “Somewhere Else” starts and ends well; “I Dream With An Angel Tonight” is lush and soothing and “All My Life” sounds like fellow pop swede Annie (a very good thing) and has a spoken verse towards the end that has the same rhythm that Neil Tennant employs on “What Have I Done To Deserve This”. From here on in though, things start to become more of a challenge.
Deep breath; “This City’s Local Italo Disco DJ Has A Crush On Me” unfortunately does not live up to its title. Did it ever really stand a chance? It’s a burbling, squelchy late 80s sounding piece of kitsch which would be fine if it had a more distinctive melody to fall back on. “What Can I Do” opens with a flute and whimsy like nothing I’ve heard this side of the early 1970s Scandinavian folk pop of Abba. I have a feeling that both of these tracks are an attempt, a heavy-handed one at that, at irony and a pastiche on the genres they seem to be aping and they feel jokey and are hard to take seriously; neither are very good songs. Saint Etienne are a band that can also flirt with sonic themes and periods in pop culture that have a bit of self-conscious wink to them but with much more favourable results and, essentially, a sincerity that makes you invest in them. This mid-tempo slump continues with “If It Doesn’t Rain”, the best of the bunch, recalling (and not just because of the wet weather theme) the superior “They Say It’s Gonna Rain” by 80s, Essex hi-energy queen, Hazell Dean. “Sundown” sounds like a Shakatak ballad which shouldn’t in any way be interpreted as a good thing and another reference here is the eighties ‘jazz-funk’ group, (a popular musical trend at the time, young people) The Rah Band and the completely delightful and eccentric “Clouds Across The Moon” but the magic of that track isn’t captured in the clutch of songs here.
The final third of the album is much more successful at hitting its intended target. “Don’t Be Afraid” gets the sad, bitter-sweet mood down perfectly with its descending chord changes in the verse and it’s undulating, warm synths offsetting the heartbreak; it’s the best song here. “Lives Together” and “Architectured Love” are both sleek, pulsing Giorgio Moroder beauties with Shapiro swirling angelically above the machines and it’s in these closing tracks that “Somewhere Else” begins to match the pure melancholic and melodic sweetness of “Disco Romance”.
Sally Shapiro is a niche artist and I’m surprised and very pleased that this album has actually been given a physical release; many independent artists like her are seeing their work just being released in digital format now, which is depressing. This is a good album and a real grower too, even the weaker mid-section has its moments, but it’s really when she reverts back to the original musical format of her debut album that you begin to appreciate Shapiro and similar artists continuing to express their vision with such dedication, however specialist and limited it may appear. “Somewhere Else” may wear its influences on its sleeve but it also doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve reviewed in the last 18 months and for that reason alone Sally Shapiro and her third album should be commended.