CD Reviews

Depeche, Pet Shop still moving

By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 20, 2009
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In 1987, that neon-splashed year that gave us a slew of alabaster British bands who tinkered on their Casios and proved that dance music could be serious and frivolous, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode were scaling their creative peaks.

With the release that year of "Actually," Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe racked up another pair of hits, "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and "It's a Sin." Dave Gahan and his fellow pretty boys in Depeche Mode put out "Music for the Masses," showcasing a clutch of songs as dark as their eyeliner.

It's fascinating, then, to see how they've aged. Both bands have new albums out tomorrow: PSB's "Yes" (Astralwerks) is yet another batch of fizzy Europop, and Depeche Mode slinks back into the ring with the mostly down-tempo "Sounds of the Universe" (Mute). They couldn't be farther apart on the spectrum.

As elder statesmen of electro-pop (check out the YouTube clip of them performing recently at the Brit Awards with Lady GaGa and the Killers' Brandon Flowers), Pet Shop Boys have been deeply entrenched in their sound for several albums now. They're practically a genre unto themselves; not many bands, much less American ones, are still making the sweeping, orchestral dance pop that PSB pioneered.

Where their previous studio album, 2006's "Fundamental," struck a revelant chord with damning lyrics about Tony Blair and George W. Bush, "Yes" tackles less imposing subjects ("Beautiful People"). It's depressing to think Pet Shop Boys have witnessed a wave of innovations in electronic music (from the crash and burn of electroclash to the meteoric rise of dance-rock bands such as Hot Chip and Girl Talk), and yet their music still sounds like the toast of 1997.

Depeche Mode achieves a tricky balance on "Sounds of the Universe": Its 12th full-length album fits neatly into its discography while sounding contemporary and building on the trio's lean electro-rock.

On many songs, the ominous arrangements match the lyric lines. "When you get what you need/There's no way of knowing/What you have is another hole to feed," Gahan sings over a languid beat and squiggly synthesizer line on "Hole to Feed."

They lighten the mood a bit on "Fragile Tension," a synth-driven track whose bright melody is out of synch with the song's bleak outlook. "Jezebel," a minor-chord wash of guitars and ricocheting keyboard lines, is ageless. It's the best of both worlds: something old, something new.