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Looking over the bands featured on pop compilation Now 8, released back in 1986, one could never see an act like Cutting Crew writing a ballet score. But would anyone have predicted that the Pet Shop Boys, rubbing shoulders on the same release, would be doing just that some 25 years on?
These days it's hard to imagine pop music without the duo's presence. Here they distinguish this project from their mainstream canon with both the name Tennant/Lowe, and just the right balance of pretentiousness at play.
For a band triggered by mutual love of Italo-disco, Pet Shop Boys have come a long way: from urban pop to imperial chart-toppers, from "the Smiths you can dance to" via supergroup Electronic, to 2009's barnstorming album Yes. They have cast their net beyond the charts before, liberating themselves from one-word album titles in the process. Both 2001's Closer to Heaven musical and 2005's score to Battleship Potemkin (similarly released as Tennant/Lowe) were critical successes; but here, with the Oscar-winning Black Swan in cinemas and Paul McCartney also writing a ballet, they've inadvertently caught the zeitgeist.
Based upon a Hans Christian Andersen short story, the ballet is collaboration with choreographer Javier de Frutos and the Wroclaw Orchestra. Never resting on their laurels, this is not Domino (Ballet) Dancing, but entirely new music. Detractors often cite Tennant's distinctive voice as problematic, but this score, bar fleeting moments, is entirely instrumental. Strings, wind instruments, and synthesisers jostle happily together; presumably, the dancing becomes the lyrics when witnessed on stage.
The two discs here suck in influences from stadium house to chamber symphonies. There are It's a Sin thunderclaps, and Risk gently revisits the melody of 2009 B side After the Event. The Grind's thudding keyboards become a recurring motif, but remarkably little here sounds anything like the pair's work as Pet Shop Boys. Its minimal orchestration never drowns the listener; strings sweep and chords portend, without any track outstaying its welcome. In fact, the sole vocal section here, appearing initially on The Grind, is curtailed. Still, the yearning, Donna Summer-esque motif of "Baby, what do you want from me, baby?" could form part of a great single.
The Challenge echoes the New York excitement of their debut album Please, while the piano-led Help Me is haunting. It does meander at times, but peaks need their valleys, and the dancers presumably need a sit down. It doubtlessly works better as a full performance, but as a stand-alone soundtrack has wonderful moments nonetheless. With a new (mainstream PSB) album in the works, and projects like this showing that the band's desire to reach beyond the confines of pop shows no signs of abating, it's evident that Tennant and Lowe remain powerful forces for the progression of contemporary composition.