Last year I did something I haven’t done in… well, actually, something I’ve never done. Which was to not buy the new Pet Shop Boys album. Yep, I’ve got every single studio and remix album dating back to their 1986 debut, Please. Of course the group’s heyday was in the late 1980s but I’ve liked all their albums since then, though certainly some (1996’s Bilingual) were better than others (2006’s Fundamental). Some of the recent singles such as “Love, etc.” (2009) and “Miracles” (2003) were among their best ever.
But when I sampled 2012’s Elysium, I was completely underwhelmed. Lots of slow and atmospheric songs that also veered more than typical into “theatrical” style. The songs were not that catchy (which is bad for a pop group). So last Fall, for the first time ever, I didn’t buy the album or even the singles.
I think I might not have been alone because not too long after the release, the Pet Shop Boys announced they would be releasing a new album in summer 2013. After nearly two decades of three or four year gaps between albums, the group would release a new album less than year after their last one. Unprecedented. (In an interesting aside, No Doubt is following the same plan by going back into the studio after their 2012 album wasn’t well received).
Would the group change tactics for this new album? Well, the album name is Electric, which bodes well for those of us who’ve always preferred the strong dance material to the slower ballads. The first track to be released is an outstanding club track called “Axis.” There’s not a lot of lyrical content there, though it’s always special when keyboardist Chris Lowe makes a rare appearance with vocals (as with most cases, processed vocals). Musically, and visually in the video, this song says to their electronic fans, “we’re back.” It has guys dancing with bull heads! Amazing.
Even better is the second single, “Vocal.” This is a more traditional pop song but still has a energetic beat. For longtime Pet Heads, it’ll remind you both lyrically and musically of 1989’s underrated single “It’s Alright.” Hopeful, optimistic, and a song you can dance to. Great stuff.
It’s only the beginning of June but I can tell you there will be no better album released this year than the debut album of Sweden’s Ixtahuele, Pagan Rites. The band plays Martin Denny-style Exotica music and interestingly the album contains only original songs. Covers are a staple of the genre, so an album of only originals is rare. What’s even more unusual is that these originals are all excellent. The sound is crisp and the band eschews synthesizers and other electronic instrumentation that has crept into many “exotica” records over the past decade.
What Ixtahuele have done is created a sound so similar to the old Martin Denny records that if you played this and said it was a “lost album” by Denny and his group you’d be hard pressed to argue. Not that whatÂ Ixtahuele is doing is merely copying the old master. Indeed, it’s refreshing to see a band play the style of music “straight” without trying to slipstream on the ambient or electronic or lounge or burlesque trends that are cousins to the classic “tiki exotica” that Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Robert Drasnin made famous in the 1950s.
As with all great Exotica records, there are a mix of styles represented on Pagan Rites. “Gardens of Mu” is a mellow mix of piano and vibes. “Lotus Eaters” features an “oriental” piano riff while “Orust Luau” features Latin rhythms. The opening track “Black Sand” features animal sounds that would fit in on any Denny album. And “Stone Gods of Bimini” includes chanting and a great percussion break. In other words, all the subgenres that made classic Exotica albums portals into fantastic places real or imagined.
Not everything’s perfect withÂ Ixtahuele, starting with the name that’s fairly impossible to pronounce. And their black tie aethstetic, while a nice departure from the typical Hawaiian shirt motif still is incongruous with the music being played. Still, minor quibbles overall.
The reason this is album of the year is that amongst it’s genre, it’s quite easily the best album in at least five years. And honestly I can see myself putting this on the shelf next to classics by Denny, Lyman, Drasnin, Gene Rains, and Les Baxter and feeling like this belongs in the canon.
I’ve been considering which devices to take on vacation this year, and strongly considering leaving the laptop at home. We will be traveling in Europe in Switzerland and northern Italy, and also a few days in Amsterdam. The coach and the hotels are all supposed to have WiFi, but the laptop for me is only really necessary for work stuff - which I hope to avoid (since, you know, I’ll be on vacation).
It got me thinking about Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPad, where he noted that “we all have a smartphone and/or a laptop” and wondered if there was room for a third category device. That device in the middle turned out to be the iPad. After Jobs’ keynote, I didn’t think I’d want/need an iPad. But for those couple months every time I was on the couch and wanted to look something up on the internet, I sure felt like a 9.7 inch screen would be better than a 3.5 inch one. So, I got one on day one.
The vacation packing list made me think about the three devices, and if I had to give one up which one would it be? The laptop, the tablet, or the smartphone. And, really, it wasn’t much of a debate. If I had to give up one it most definitely would be the tablet. I just can’t imagine giving up a “full desktop operating system” experience all the time, nor can I imagine not having an iPhone for staying connected away from home.
But what if you had to give up two? Which one device would I keep. Now that’s a much more difficult decision. And, based on my last decision you’d think it would be either the smartphone or the laptop. But, in fact, if I could keep only one it’d be the tablet! Very capable for “productivity” but still the kind of device that isn’t a pain to carry.
In other words, the iPad is at once the most expendable … and the least expendable.
Bittersweet day at the Niles-Centerville Little League fields as the season ended for the Minor-A Athletics. Quinn had a good game where he went 2-3 including an RBI. Quinn also pitched for the third time this season, going 1 inning with two strikeouts and one run scored.
Footage is from the iPhone as well as Julie’s new Canon SX500 IS.Â This video was produced on iMovie for iPhone, because I still find iMovie for Mac’s interface completely baffling. Importing the video clips also didn’t seem to work right either. It’s a sad state of affairs that it was easier to edit video on a 4″ phone than a 21″ iMac. I guess it speaks to the ease of use of the iPhone version, I suppose.
The version below features music from Audioslave, which may limit viewing in certain geographies or on certain platforms. There’s a mobile-friendly version with generic music that’s also available.
Quinn has been swinging the bat well the past few games after a mid-season slump. This was his second hit to the outfield in today’s game vs. the Yankees. Â Quinn also made a nice grab on a tricky popup at second base.
This is my favorite song right now. Not of all time, or maybe even for much longer. But if you asked me today to listen to a song that I was sure to dig, this is it.
“Antarctica” by Men without Hats
Yep, those Men without Hats.
I happened across the group’s 2012 album Love in the Age of Waron iTunes and actually liked the very new-wavey synthpop. What normally would do is take a closer look at the group’s back catalog, aside from their well-known hits “The Safety Dance” and “Pop Goes the World.” Â But for some reason I didn’t do that last year.
As Summer 2013 approaches, it’s time for summer concert season. This year, one event at Saratoga’s Mountain Winery is “The Regeneration Tour” that features vintage 1980’s new wave bands. The headliner was supposed to be The Human League but shortly after tickets were on sale group announced they were in fact not participating in the tour. This left the promoters with a bit of a problem. Â Also appearing on the bill are Erasure’s Andy Bell, Howard Jones, and The Information Society. Â Lucky for the promoters, Men without Hats was available and while certainly not the draw The Human League would be, it certainly seems like a good fit for the show.
So, I thought it might be a good idea to dig into the Men without Hats back catalog. Turns out their 1982 album Rhythm of Youth was pretty good and featured some very nice 80’s synthpop, some of which resembles early Depeche Mode. In looking at Setlist.fm, it turns out this is where the majority of the group’s live songs are pulled from. The album from iTunes also features the video version of “The Safety Dance” which has a different and to my ears better version of the song than the longer album version.
The best of the “minor hits” from Men without Hats’ catalog is this fine piece of synthpop, “Antarctica.” It originally appeared on the groups no-longer-available EP Folk of the 80’s from 1980. The EP version is longer than the one that appeared on Rhythm of Youth, hence the out-of-sequence section of the end of this video, which is footage from Canadian Musi-Video show. Â I wouldn’t call the lyrics any sort of meaningful material, but I like the synth riffs and the way the song is sung.