October Audio Reviews: Diane Birch — In, Katy Perry —Out

By Robbie Daw & Stephen Sears

October Audio is here, Instincters, and more interactive than ever! Stream music, watch videos, plus get the ever-excellent expert opinions from our musical mavens on the newest releases. What’s spinning right now? We've got reviews on the new releases from Diane Birch, Katy Perry, Donna Summer, St. Lucia and Cass McCombs.



Speak A Little Louder (S-Curve)

5 stars

Forget Katy, Gaga, Britney, Miley and all the other pop dames out there chucking out standard pop-porn fare; Diane Birch has the truly amazing album of Fall 2013 that you need to be tuning in to. It’s been over four years since the singer-songwriter’s debut Bible Belt first gained her a moderate amount of attention, but this follow-up, written during much emotional heartache (the songstress went through a breakup and dealt with the passing of her father) signifies that it was worth the wait. The title track starts things off on a hauntingly melodic, mid-tempo note before “Lighthouse” kicks things up a notch with galloping drums and a soaring chorus. Keep an ear out for the outstanding “Pretty In Pain,” a funky toe-tapper Birch wrote with disco legend Betty Wright. It’s followed by killer cuts like the handclap-filled, Stevie Nicks-esque “Love And War,” the new wave throwback “Frozen Over” and the heartbreaking tribute to the singer’s father, “It Plays On.” Buy this album, please. — RD





Prism (Capitol)

2.5 stars

Here’s the thing about Katy Perry’s third album Prism: she worked with several Swedes on the album, including Bloodshy and Klas Åhlund, and those are really the standout tracks here. (Some may dig the ballad "Double Rainbow," if that’s your thing.) One of the big songs that’ll get a lot of gays clutching their candy is "Walking On Air," which Perry did with Klas and sounds like an early-'90s house throwback. At a recent album listening session in New York, Katy said she wanted something that sounded like an old CeCe Peniston jam with this track — and it’s pretty marvelous. But overall, you get the sense that the choruses on Prism just don’t go anywhere like you really want them to. The song "This Is How We Do" was recorded in Stockholm with Bloodshy, and I kept hoping the chorus would just blow up. Mind you, it was a decent track, but by album number three, Katy should be knocking catchy vocal arrangements out of the park, and it just doesn’t seem to be happening this time around. Sorry, KatyCats. — RD





Love To Love You Donna (Verve)

3 stars

The thought behind this posthumous remix collection of the famed disco diva’s hits is to honor her biggest chart successes like “Love To Love You Baby,” “Hot Stuff” and “MacArthur Park,” while also introducing her tracks to the younger, more EDM-loving generation. The reinterpretations themselves are hit or miss for the most part. Duke Dumont’s take on “Dim All The Lights” incorporates little of Summer herself, while the Holy Ghost! Mix of “Working The Midnight Shift” takes a backing vocal track rather than the lead melody fans will recognize. Elsewhere, Afrojack offers up an adrenalized take on “I Feel Love” and Frankie Knuckles pairs with Eric Kupper for a retro-sounding house work-over of “Hot Stuff.” Curiosity seekers will no doubt be thrilled with the addition of “La Dolce Vita,” an unreleased track Summer recorded with longtime producer Giorio Moroder. If only there had been other such lost gems to populate this otherwise so-so compilation. — RD





When The Night (Columbia)

4 stars

St. Lucia’s long awaited debut album thunders across the dance floor. Lush single “Elevate” is held aloft by monolithic synths, while “The Way You Remember Me” recalls a lost John Hughes soundtrack. Band leader Jean-Philip Grobler’s voice is right up front in that track’s polished mix of big drums, synths and — sigh — a sax solo. Early single “September” is a leaner disco machine with swoops of falsetto vocals and a sense of elegant urgency. Former choirboy Grobler delivers a collection of songs that mainline pure euphoria; this is music equally compelling beneath strobe lights or sunshine. — SS





Big Wheel And Others (Domino)

4 stars

Cass McCombs records always sound best in the fall, and so here we are with the mid-October release of the California alt-rock poet’s seventh LP. With a run-time of nearly an hour-and-a-half, there are 19 (!) tracks to be found, three of which are snippets of dialog from ‘70s documentary Sean. It would be altogether bizarre stuff if McCombs wasn’t so deft at turning out completely amazing, off-the-wall rockers like “Big Wheel” and “There Can Only Be One,” or the somber, timeless sounding “Brighter!”, a collaboration with recently-deceased actress Karen Black, of all people. Cass has always proven himself to be a musical oddity you shouldn’t miss out on. Here’s another chance — a pretty great one, at that — for your introduction to his world. — RD


September Audio Reviews

By Robbie Daw, John Hamilton & Stephen Sears

Our Audio section is more interactive than ever! Stream music, watch videos, plus get the ever-excellent expert opinions from our musical mavens on the newest releases. What’s spinning right now? We've got reviews on the new releases from Goldfrapp, AlunaGeorge, Janelle Monáe, Natalia Kills and more.


Tales of Us (Mute)

4.5 Stars

Goldfrapp’s sixth album opener, “Jo,” starts with a red herring: a burst of synth strings. They quickly fade to a plucked bass and Alison Goldfrapp’s beautiful voice singing, “Heard a shot and someone calling, strained in darkness.” It’s as if she’s passed through a film noir portal. The album’s ten songs are narratives: “Annabel,” based on the story of a young hermaphrodite expected to choose one sexual identity; “Simone,” a betrayal scenario. Only the pounding “Thea” hints at past disco majesty; most of Tales is built on acoustic instrumentation, awash in orchestrals.  Make no mistake: the album is a perfect fall headphone record.  The lone song without a proper name, “Stranger,” ascends the (felt) mountain of Goldfrappian classics. To paraphrase its lyric, Tales Of Us will kill you, tenderly. — SS 





TRUE (PRMD/Island)

4 Stars

Like a slightly more ambitious David Guetta (heaven forbid), Avicii is taking the opportunity of his first studio album to make a play for world domination. With a Grammy nomination, a bona fide dance-pop classic in the Etta James-sampling “Levels,” and new single “Wake Me Up” bounding into the U.S. Top 10, the 24-year-old DJ/Producer just may be onto something. TRUE parlays his disco expertise into a surprisingly diverse set of pop tunes, one that betrays influences of everything from country to '60s psyche-pop to ethereal diva wailing. He’s even wangled guest star collaborations from Nile Rodgers, Adam Lambert and Mac Davis, of all people, to show that his musical roots extend beyond the club. If that all sounds terrifyingly unfocused, fear not: every track is an upbeat corker with a chorus clearly engineered for major dance floor arm-waving. Extra points for doing so without help from Sia or Pitbull. — JH 






Electric Lady (Wondaland Arts/Bad Boy)

4 Stars

The curious case of Janelle Monáe: Prince, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Liza Minnelli rolled into one pocket-sized pistol. High art, high hair and high fashion have not equaled high charting singles. Second LP Electric Lady is a Gemini, split into two halves. The first is serious funk R’n’B soul (her duet with Miguel, “PrimeTime,” may actually dent the charts). The Stevie Wonderesque second half (check “It’s Code” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”) is a near flawless '70s album unto itself. Make your own playlist and call it Songs In The Key Of Monáe. — SS 






Body Music (Vagrant)

3.5 Stars

Riding the current wave of UK dance that also includes Jessie Ware, Katy B and a raft of other hopefuls, electro-soul duo AlunaGeorge have a good shot at their own hit with the sleek Body Music. Reminiscent of Craig David, AlunaGeorge—singer Aluna Francis and knob-twiddler George Reid—lay atmospheric R&B over skittering 2-step garage beats and taut, popping basslines like nobody’s business. Although most tracks swing in the right direction (first single “You Know You Like It” is a jam) and seamlessly fuse the dance floor with the bedroom (album highlight “Driver”), nothing lingers in the memory very long after it’s ended. Still, it’s a pleasant enough party that ends on a high note with a cheeky cover of Montell Jordan’s classic “This is How We Do It.” — JH 






Trouble (Interscope)

3.5 Stars

Ah, Natalia Kills—the raven-haired Hot Topic goth girl who tried to jump on the Lady Gaga bandwagon three years ago with clumsy electro debut Perfectionist. How she’s still signed to a major label after that colossal flop is anyone’s guess, but here we are. “That girl is a problem,” Natalia warns on electric rock rant “Problem,” before asking, “Don’t you wanna save this dirty little damsel?” Other tracks like “Saturday Night” and “Outta Time” mine '80s synth pop for all it's worth. To be honest, the overall result here is a generally pleasing, modern-sounding record (as it should be, given that studio whiz Jeff Bhasker produced the album). When presented with a rare second chance, Kills seized upon it and actually delivered a somewhat solid album. Whether she’ll get the big break it’ll take to catapult this into the mainstream, however, remains to be seen. — RD 



The Boys of Summer


By Robbie Daw


Summer 2013 needed a soundtrack. Thankfully it’s Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to the rescue. Thirty years into their career as the preeminent gentleman of pop and conveyors of all that is witty, heartfelt and occasionally tongue-in-cheek under the strobe light, Pet Shop Boys are about to release their 12th studio album, Electric. For production duties, the UK duo enlisted fellow Brit Stuart Price — yes, the man behind Madonna’s Confessions On A Dancefloor and a dozen other pop gems from the past decade. The result, dare we say it, is the pair’s most banging album since 1993’s Very.


What brings you two to Los Angeles?

NEIL TENNANT: We’re just in LA for two days before going down to Chile. Our manager also lives here, so we’ve been meeting with her on a few other things. We’re about to start a South American tour on Monday, and we go to Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay.


The Electric Tour hits the States in September. I caught you twice last time around, on the Pandemonium Tour, including the date in Italy with Take That.

NEIL: Oh, in Milan! Yeah, that was fun.


Do you anticipate this jaunt lasting as long as the previous one? That tour stretched on for three years.

NEIL: Yeah, well, we’ll see! The Pandemonium Tour was officially going to take two years. But then the Take That thing happened. You know, sometimes you just get offers to do festivals or to do certain gigs, and so we’re happy to do that.


Let’s discuss the new album, Electric — which is coming out on your own label, x2. Chris, do I understand this correctly, that you came up with the name, x2?

CHRIS LOWE: Well, actually, we didn’t think we needed a label. We hadn’t really thought about it. And then we suddenly had to have one. We came up with a few ideas. Can’t think of what they are now.  But I like DSQUARED2, the clothing label, and I thought, ah, DSQUARED2 — and there are two of them; they’re twins. So I thought, what would the Pet Shop Boys’ version of that be? I thought maybe x2. I put it on my iPhone and it had a very nice simplicity to it. It looked very elegant with the “x” and the “2”. So the exciting thing is having a new brand, a new label. And we want to do different things with it — not necessarily music-related.


Your previous album, the beautiful Elysium, was only released last September, and yet here you are with a brand new record, out in July. This is like a feast for all the Petheads out there.

NEIL: It’s kind of a remarkably quick turnaround after Elysium. But we feel really excited about that. When we go out on tour, which starts Monday, we’ve got two new albums to play songs from. And also, I think, with our new label set up, we feel the freedom to do what we like. I think that’s a very important freedom for us. When you’ve been making records for a long time, it’s great to suddenly feel that you can do things and not necessarily always worry about radio play or whether the music industry finds it a bit strange to release two records in a 12-month period. And we can do that! So it feels like a great, free time for us.





In your video for the Electric teaser track “Axis,” it appears as if the orange cone hats are back. Is this a wink toward Very?

CHRIS: A lot of that is video projections from the latest show we’re doing. The designer, Es Devlin, who we’ve worked with before, wanted to reference some of our older stuff. But also, when we appeared at the closing ceremony of the Olympics in London, they wanted us to wear those pointy hats. They’ve become part of our iconography now. They’re black, though, not the orange ones, so they’re slightly different from Very.

NEIL: The Very ones were actually made of cardboard, or paper, even. Gareth Pugh made the ones for the Olympics. And the ones we wear for this tour are much more designer.


Electric is a very “up,” nine-track album produced by Stuart Price, and it plays like the perfect record for summer.

CHRIS: The main thing about working with Stuart is it’s just a lot of fun in the studio. There’s a lot of laughter and a lot of chatting. He works very, very quickly, which we always like with people. It’s never boring working with Stuart. He’s the perfect collaborator for us.





The new single, “Vocal,” undeniably has you two getting back to the dance floor.

NEIL: It genuinely sounds like a dance anthem. And also, it was a challenge writing the lyrics to a song about being on the dance floor without being cheesy. I’m really proud of the lyrics. I think they’ve got a lot of poetry about them — you know, “aspirations for a better life are ordained.” Sounds positively biblical! [Laughs] I think it’s a lovely song. It’s got a joke in it — which actually slightly dates it, because dance music has gotten more vocal recently — about having every track as a vocal, and that makes a change. So much dance music is instrumental.


Looking ahead, you’ve been working on a project revolving around the life of Alan Turing. How did this come about for you two?

NEIL: Chris saw a documentary on television about Alan Turing. He was, for people who don’t know, an English mathematician and inventor and code-breaker, and he invented what is now the modern home computer —the universal machine, which is one machine that would solve every problem. During the second World War, he had this big team that broke the Enigma Code, so they could find out what the German submarines were doing in the Atlantic. He very much helped to win the war. But also, he was an open homosexual. He used to tell people that he was a homosexual, which was illegal in those days and very shocking for people. He was very, very direct about it. He ended up being prosecuted for that and going to court. As punishment, they didn’t send him to prison, they gave him injections of female hormones. And as a result of being found guilty of gross indecency, his security clearances were withdrawn. He became depressed and he killed himself.


What a horrible end for a man who was essentially a pioneer and a war hero.

NEIL: He died and still remains a guilty man in the eyes of the law. Anyway, this film that Channel 4 made was very moving. We both read this biography by an Oxford professor called Andrew Hodges, who wrote this in the early ‘80s. He came from two directions: one, he’s a professor of mathematics, and two, he was a gay rights activist in the 1970s. Both of those strands came together in this magnificent biography. And that’s why [our] piece is called A Man From The Future, because [Turing] was credited as the inventor of the modern computer. Also, he was openly gay, which was an extremely difficult thing to be in those days. He was also looking forward to how things would be in the future. This piece is structured as eight different scenes in the life of Alan Turing, and it’s a spoken-word, electronics orchestra. We actually premiered one of the pieces when we did a concert with the BBC Philharmonic last year. It was called “He Dreamed Of Machines.” We went through Andrew Hodges’ book and took just phrases, really, to indicate what was going on at a particular time. That phrase, “He dreamed of machines” — which is beautiful, I think, for a piece of music — came from Andrew’s book. So that’s kind of an indication of what it’s like.


Thank you both very much for the chat. Looking forward to catching you on the road this fall!

NEIL & CHRIS: Thank you!


Pet Shop Boys new album Electric will be released on July 16. The North American leg of The Electric Tour kicks off September 12 in Miami.