October 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Pet Shop Boys: Smash: The Singles 1985–2020
Parlophone 0190295021962 (6 LP). 2023. Various prods. and engs. plus Andy Baldwin, remastering eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

It's hardly news that pop can be simultaneously intelligent and fun, or that a music single can be both fun entertainment and a significant cultural artefact. Smash is evidence, as if any more were needed, that the Pet Shop Boys are sublimely good at that particular synthesis.

Considering the large number of singles included in this set, the number of naff ones is surprisingly small. Arranged chronologically, the first two LPs will be the most familiar, with numbers such as "West End Girls" (the later, 1985 version, which reached number one in the US and the UK), "It's a Sin," and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" These remastered versions are marginally but usefully clearer than the originals, but the remastering doesn't make a huge difference; the PSBs always sounded pure and do so here. The music is varied—ballads, show tunes, techno, a mixture of all three, a few other genres thrown in for good measure—yet thematic threads make this large box sound like a carefully thought-out single album rather than a compilation. Neil Tennant's lyrics are memorable and witty, at one point combining references to disco, Debussy, and Che Guevarra in a single line. His voice is pure and very English. (For those in the US: His accent sounds nothing like the part of England he hails from.) Then there's Chris Lowe's gift for creating catchy tunes.

The accompanying booklet is enlightening and amusing, with the pair discussing the origins of each single and how their skills combined to create them. The real bonus of Smash though is the chance to hear the lesser-known singles: the lush, touching ballad "Numb"; the anthemic "Love etc."; the electro-country of "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk." Smash succeeds by reminding us about those classic pop singles and introducing others, which makes us want to further explore the Pet Shop Boys' vast catalog.—Phil Brett

R.E.M.: Around the Sun
Craft Recordings (LP). 2023. Pat McCarthy & R.E.M., prods.
Performance ***
Sonics ***

R.E.M.: Collapse Into Now
Craft Recordings (LP). 2023. Jacknife Lee and R.E.M., prods.
Performance ***
Sonics ***

These two albums, two of the final three of the great band's 30-year career, have long been out of print. Now they have been reissued on vinyl. (Craft Recordings has also released the third of the three final, Accelerate, but it was not received in time for this review.)

Around the Sun was written just as America was grappling with the 9/11 attacks and then the Iraq War; it reflects the somber tone of the era. The songs here blend political commentary with meditations on love, loss, and the fast-changing world. They seemed a bit late to market in 2004, and they haven't aged as well as the band might have hoped. This was the first REM record that did not generate a US hit, and while "Leaving New York" and "Aftermath" enjoyed some overseas success, the album has often been described as R.E.M.'s low point.

Collapse Into Now was recorded over the course of a year in several cities. Bassist Mike Mills provides brilliant vocal harmonies and guitarist Peter Buck serves up his signature steely sound. The songs are creative in tone and title, and the production allows room for Michael Stipe's voice. As happens at any good send-off party, interesting guests dropped by: Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Peaches. It's a fine farewell, one carefully considered by the band prior to departure.

Both reissues were cut by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio and pressed on 180gm vinyl at Memphis Record Pressing. The packaging, especially Around the Sun's packaging, is premium. Yet these are releases for fans only. They act merely, or mainly, as acknowledgements that all good things must end and a record of how R.E.M. came to terms.—Ray Chelstowski

Hot Tuna: Live at Sweetwater 1
Live at Sweetwater 2
Live in Japan

Mercury Studios (3 CD). 2023. Rick Sanchez, Michael Falzarano, Jon Smith, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Hot Tuna has released a three-CD box set of concerts from the '90s capturing back-to-back shows in January 1992 at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California, and a third, January 1997 show at Stove's in Yokohama, Japan. All three were released individually in the '90s then remastered and reissued, with bonus tracks, in 2004. This is the first release to put all three shows in a single package, which also comes with a poster.

Jorma Kaukonen (guitar and vocals) and bassist Jack Casady have been performing as Hot Tuna since 1969, when they were both in Jefferson Airplane (which probably was named for Kaukonen, who had been nicknamed Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane by his friend Steve Talbot.) These concerts put a spotlight on what they have always done best, tapping into blues, bluegrass, and covers of songs by Elvis, Dylan, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash. Here, those songs are purely acoustic, with no drums. Each show has surprises; particularly notable is a rare version of Jefferson Airplane's "Embryonic Journey" performed without drums. There is little crossover between the three shows. Much ground is covered.

Among the guests making appearances are Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, Wavy Gravy, Maria Muldaur, and folksinger Happy Traum. But this is first and foremost a Hot Tuna exhibition. Sonically, these records are pristine, and there is very little difference between the venues; all three shows sound like they could have been part of the same concert. The remastering gives the music a studiolike clarity, with just enough depth to remind you that these songs were played in front of a live audience.

There is little banter—just two remarkably talented musicians, guests, and the music they keep alive with electrifying live acoustic sets like this.—Ray Chelstowski

avanti1960's picture

release both versions of "West End Girls" on their 6 LP set "Smash".
I first heard the quirky yet (to me) better first version on Toronto radio and grew to like it. The 1985 version is more polished and radio friendly but just loses something that the original had.
The original is a PSB classic.