Music Reviews: Pet Shop Boys, Sturgill Simpson, Ronnie Spector

superPet Shop Boys :: ‘Super’

Pet Shop Boys take another drink from the fountain of youth on their 13th album Super, yet another impressive dance record coming more than 30 years after their debut single “West End Girls.”

Producer Stuart Price takes his second look at the work of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe with this record, written in Berlin and recorded in Los Angeles, and the record delves into the nightclub scene with the usual aplomb. Tennant is a keen observer with sharp storytelling skills, best seen on tunes like “The Pop Kids,” a tale of 1990s club-goers, and “Twenty-something,” another song that looks 15 years back and reflects on how traditional careers have become more elusive in the modern age. Lowe has an uncanny ability to keep even the most overfamiliar keyboard sounds from drifting to the far side of cheesy and there’s enough variety to ensure that none overstays its welcome.

Some slow tunes and instrumentals cleverly break the dance music dominance. The protagonist of “The Dictator Decides” agrees the world would be better off without him, and Tennant sees the tracks of the machines’ tears on the poignant “Sad Robot World.” (Pablo Gorondi/AP)

SturgillSturgill Simpson :: ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

Sturgill Simpson defies categorization, and exceeds expectations, with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an exploration of life’s journey inspired by the birth of his first child.

Simpson funks up his country twang with a rousing horn section while keeping a rocking and rollicking edge underneath his probing lyrics. Heck, he even throws in bagpipes, a cello, a violin and a killer cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Simpson, like all great interpreters, makes the Kurt Cobain song sound like his own, and it fits in perfectly with the mood and theme of A Sailor’s Guide.

The record’s final tune, “Call to Arms,” is just what it sounds like. Simpson decries what he’s hearing on TV and radio, and with the horns and guitars growling behind him, urgently declares, “The bull—-’s got to go!”

Rock, country, Americana. Whatever. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a thrill. This compact 39 minutes of pure joy has got the kind of energy that makes you instinctively lean forward just to try and keep up. (Scott Bauer/AP)

RonnieSpectorRonnie Spector :: ‘English Heart’

In 1964, Ronnie Spector toured Britain with the Ronettes just weeks before the Beatles arrived in America. English Heart is her tribute to that British Invasion, in turn influenced by her band and former husband Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.”

While Spector is often cited for the power of her pipes, these 11 songs are styled more around subtlety and insinuation, and producer Scott Jacoby has wisely favored the feel of the 1960s originals over exact recreations of their sounds. There are exceptions, like the thumping drums and Farfisa organ on the Dave Clark Five tune “Because.” Conversely, electronic percussion on “You’ve Got Your Troubles” (originally by The Fortunes) lends a contemporary touch, contributing to the accommodating combination of old and new.

Spector wisely covers smaller but superior U.S. hits like Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” and Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” instead of the usual smashes. A version of the Rolling Stones’ semi-obscure “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls” — with the daughter of her late sister (and fellow Ronette) Estelle Bennett and cousin Cindy Mizelle -— is pure joy. (Pablo Gorondi/AP)