Album reviews: Pet Shop Boys | St Vincent | Neil Young with Crazy Horse | BMX Bandits

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have once more conjured synth pop magic on a 15th album which is both wistful and fresh, writes Fiona Shepherd

Pet Shop Boys: Nonetheless (Parlophone) ****

St Vincent: All Born Screaming (Virgin Music/Fiction Records) ****

Neil Young with Crazy Horse: Fu##in’ Up (Reprise Records) ***

Pet Shop Boys PIC: Alasdair McLellanPet Shop Boys PIC: Alasdair McLellan
Pet Shop Boys PIC: Alasdair McLellan

BMX Bandits: Dreamers on the Run (Tapete) ****

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With Neil Tennant nudging 70, Pet Shop Boys mark the 40th anniversary of the first (non-charting) release of West End Girls by returning to their former label Parlophone for the first time in over a decade. How very cosy and nostalgic. Yet, in partnership with producer James Ford, the dynamic duo of Tennant and Chris Lowe have once more conjured synth pop magic on a 15th album which is both wistful and fresh, while always being identifiably Pet Shop Boys.

A teasing ambient wash leads into a house-infused disco rhythm on Loneliness, replete with Tennant in husky tones, yearning falsetto backing vocals, an undeniable beat and disco strings breakdown. It’s Nonetheless in microcosm. There are further shimmering retro-futuristic synth hooks (with hints of Electronic’s Getting Away With It) and multi-tracked Tennants plaintively proclaiming “I will never let you down, I will wait” on follow-up track Feel.

Why Am I Dancing? opens with a resonant brass fanfare, but it only leads to further melancholy on the dancefloor as Tennant looks back to his lockdown kitchen discos. In contrast, Dancing Star is an extrovert tribute to Rudolf Nureyev, The Schlager Hit Parade makes reference to the cheesy Europop of the Seventies, dusted with post-Brexit blues (“gesundheit to Europa”), and Bullet For Narcissus is almost certainly the only dance track ever written from the viewpoint of Donald Trump’s bodyguard.

St Vincent PIC: Alex Da CorteSt Vincent PIC: Alex Da Corte
St Vincent PIC: Alex Da Corte

New London Boy is a title loaded with promise and potential and emerges as the pick of proceedings. This is Tennant’s own story about landing in London in the early Seventies as a young gay man and features a signature deadpan Tennant rap, before exploding in a chorus of joy.

Alt.pop iconoclast and guitar shero St Vincent calls All Born Screaming “my least funny record”. Her seventh album is self-produced, but with illustrious guests Dave Grohl and Warpaint’s Stella Mogzawa on drums and Cate Le Bon on bass and additional production.

Hell Is Near is the lull before the rage, a smooth and sultry amuse bouche with psych folk guitar alongside dreamy arpeggiated synthesizers which gives way to the tremulous and dramatic electro pop of Reckless and the flinty, furious Broken Man. In contrast, Violent Times is all Bond theme seduction, So Many Planets is souped-up psychedelic ska and The Power’s Out is an accepting but determined act of surrender.

Neil Young has marked Record Store Day with a live re-recording and re-titling of classic Crazy Horse album Ragged Glory. Ragged is the word – City Life is a spontaneous wrangling of Country Home, while River of Pride becomes the tub-thumping Feels Like a Railroad. The garage cover of Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry’s R&B track Farmer John offers a change of style, while you can always count on Young and Crazy Horse to rustle up a handful of gnarly epics, such as a typically stormy Valley of Hearts aka Love to Burn.

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BMX Bandits PIC: Harrison ReidBMX Bandits PIC: Harrison Reid
BMX Bandits PIC: Harrison Reid

BMX Bandits, in contrast, offer something delicate and considered as their latest release. Dreamers on the Run is a filmic album which has been percolating for years in the mind of Bandits’ mainman Duglas T Stewart. The twinkling six-minute title track is a retro pop feast, with chiming percussion, stirring strings, hints of harpsichord, baroque backing vocals and Stewart pushing his vocals into new territory.

There are novel(ty) elements from the Bo Diddley pastiche Hop Skip Jump to My Name Is Duglas, Stewart’s whimsical nursery rhyme encouragement to outsiders. Elsewhere, Time To Get Away is graced with a charming, reedy string intro, while the characterful woodwind arrangement of Things You Threw Away is unabashed old school musical meets Bacharach & David.


Peter Donohoe: Messiaen | Mussorgsky | Ravel (Signum Classics) ****

Is there much more to be said about Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – a piece which already exists in numerous accounts, ranging from full-blooded Russian to finely-etched pictorial? It seems so, as Peter Donohoe readily illustrates in a highly-original, cool-headed performance that neatly distinguishes itself from the filigree delicacies of the accompanying Ravel’s Miroirs and the exotically-charged explosiveness of Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ. He opens with the Mussorgsky, each aural canvass so uncompromisingly focused, so resolute, that even the levity of Tuileries and the hurried chatter of The Market Place at Limoges relate to the single-minded belligerence and granite-like heft that dictate such beefier moments as The Great Gate of Kiev. Thereafter the Ravel, crafted more charmingly and airily, and the Messiaen, its incendiary textures finely-chiselled within robust structuring and technicolour climax, offer the most pleasing of complements. Donohoe’s unshakeable personality is compelling throughout. Ken Walton


Julie Abbé: Out of the Ashes (Own Label) ****

Sashaying somewhere between folk and jazz, the Bristol-based French singer Julie Abbé is steeped in English and Irish music as well as her native Poitou traditions. Out of the Ashes, however, consists of 12 self-penned songs in French and English, processing the pain of lost love. Her beguilingly lissom vocals are supported expertly by flautist Paul Johnson, Ewan Bleach on sax, clarinet and piano, James Grunwell on guitar and drums and bassist Sam Quintana. The lazy café swing of Lanternes d’Or makes for a persuasive opener, while the bluesy drift of Take Me Away sees Abbé’s languid intonation interspersed with rich-toned clarinet. The folk-archetypal Mélusine, meanwhile, generates hypnotic suspense, Abbé intoning over stark percussion and melancholic shrilling of reeds. Au Bord de la Rivière features lovely bansuri flute from Johnson, while Bleach’s sax takes up the gathering anger expressed by the singer in Out. Jim Gilchrist



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