West End Girls
s an idea, West End Girls are both terrific and terrible: a Pet Shop Boys tribute act. On the plus side, these are some of the most brilliant and enduring (if only amongst the cognoscenti) pop songs of the last twenty years. On the minus side, the A*Teens only blossomed when they begun imitating ABBA with original songs, and one gets the feeling listening to Goes Petshopping that this might be their best chance for pop greatness, albeit a slim one.
The album starts off inauspiciously with “I’m Not Scared,” never a particular highlight of the Boys’ career. The sinister music-box cum bass bleeps of the cover version show that even when the musical palette is imaginative, it doesn’t necessarily play to the strengths of Neil Tennant’s lyrics or Isabelle Erkendal’s vocals, which render some of these strong songs overly simple or childish.
The relative failure of the opening is made obvious by the next three songs which are all resounding successes: “Domino Dancing,” “Suburbia,” and “Rent.” “Domino Dancing” is sprightly yet strident, vocally affected enough to suggest the dark lyrical undercurrent while sunny enough to go with the sumptuous rearrangement—all striding beats, tinkling pianos, and claps. “Suburbia” pulls much the same trick, and if anything, the soaring chorus seems far less incongruous than it did on the original, where it stuck out as a magnificent but ill-fitting anthemic movement amidst a bleak, if vaguely affectionate verse.
The cover of “Rent” is extraordinary, though, for toughening up the song while retaining the essential emotional elements of the original. Isabelle’s detached delivery is a fine substitute for Neil’s plaintive, meek declaration of being kept; the weepy piano and violins have real grit to them and the more modern rhythm is catchy, accentuating the keen melodic hooks that otherwise might have taken second place to the melodrama. It underlines exactly why the original is such a classic, emphasising its less noticeable elements while not throwing away what was already there. Those violins recur on “Being Boring,” whose verses seem a bit preposterous delivered by someone as young as Erkendal, but the chorus soars.
Beyond the aforementioned, from then on it’s mostly faithful but uninspiring retreads. “West End Girls” captures the melody but little else of the original; “It’s A Sin” sounds tacky and cheap, jettisoning the drama for speed (though could you really recreate the original’s theatre-high-energy?); “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” sounds near enough the same as the (overrated) original; and “Shopping” is, well, rubbish any way you slice it, even if it is brash and noisy.
“Jealousy” is a good closer, the clock-ticking sound effects adding an extra touch of atmosphere, even if the closing, end-of-the-act brass is now a judicious wash of synths that jettison the impact nearly completely. But where the original’s anger was detectable beneath a polite veneer, Isabelle makes it legitimate and apparent, only becoming resigned during the song’s closing line: “I never knew, ‘til I met you.” In essence, it stands for the album completely—endless possibilities and not quite enough successes for the ones that work to cancel out the ones that could have been so much more.
But the potential is there, and for Goes Petshopping to be only a fascinating diversion rather than a great album in its own right is frustrating; several tracks here complement their originals, even coming close to bettering them. But they will never supplant or replace them. The best of these covers (the run of “Domino Dancing” through “Rent” is magnificent) are a long way ahead of the surprisingly small number of covers of the Pet Shop Boys’ material that have surfaced before, but why would anyone listen to an average “West End Girls” when the same song can be heard as one of the best singles of all time?
Reviewed by: Edward Oculicz
Reviewed on: 2006-06-28