Pet Shop Boys

It's a perfect pairing: Johnny Marr, the former guitarist of the Smiths, one of the world's most impossibly melodramatic rock bands, and the Pet Shop Boys, one of the world's most theatrical pop groups, joining forces for a set of fey, delicately heartbroken love songs packed with sophisticated melodies and shrewd character observations. Not that the Pet Shop Boys need the help, of course--over the past 20 years they've displayed remarkable staying power for a synth-based dance-pop outfit, remaining vital via the consistency of singer Neil Tennant's lyrical wit and instrumentalist Chris Lowe's invention with a limited palette. Still, Marr's ringing, ethereal guitar work makes the new Release sound refreshing in a way a Pet Shop album hasn't in a few years, and it buoys Tennant's coolly adenoidal croon. Lead single "Home and Dry" is particularly lovely, Marr threading a rippling lead line around Tennant's shapely vocal, evoking "all those dark and frantic transatlantic miles" that can separate two lovers, and "I Get Along" positions Marr's guitar as part of a budget-Phil Spector wall of sound, Tennant sending a wobbly girl-group kiss-off to a flirt who'd "much rather be with rock royalty instead of someone like me." True, Release is far from guitar-god material, but it's elegant proof that these drama kings continue to evolve.

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