Pet Shop Boys do excellent b-sides. And I could actually leave the review like that, to tell the truth. It’s all you need to know. Other bands have to fill their singles albums with a few sketchy tracks to make up the numbers, while PSB struggle to fit their b-sides onto a single compilation.
This isn’t even their first b-side album. In 1995, PSB released Alternative, a 30 track compilation of all their b-sides to date, with a big booklet containing a full commentary, and a wonderful lenticular sleeve showing both of them wearing fencing outfits for some reason.
It was a perfect compilation – there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. The weaker tracks – for me, The Sound of the Atom Splitting, What Keeps Mankind Alive and If Love Were All – are far outweighed by the sheer volume of brilliance elsewhere on the album. And since they hadn’t released a singles compilation since 1991’s Discography, this was the only real chronicle of the evolution of their sound across their career.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2012, when they released their second collection of b-sides and bonus tracks. Could they keep up their 100% success record? Well, obviously, yes.
The packaging this time is a perfect collection to their essential singles collection PopArt (2003), and should be immediately recognisable to everyone as a stylised music collection, with different colours of spines piled on top of each other. And as before, you get a detailed and typically flippant interview in the booklet.
This time around there are 38 tracks, and it suffers a little from some disappointingly inscrutable editorial decisions. The substandard single version of Discoteca and not-wildly-different single version of In Private are included, whilst valid and brilliant b-sides such as Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus and Sail Away are not. The first half of disc one is, almost without exception, a straight duplication of tracks from their 2001 Further Listening compilations. Strangest of all to me, is the decision to end the second disc with Up and Down rather than find space for the wonderful contents of their 2009 Christmas EP. But these are the sort of niggles that only a Pet Shop Boys fan would complain about, and do nothing to mar another exceptional collection.
As you listen through, you continually come across highlights which you’d completely forgotten about, particularly on the latter half of the second disc. Blue on Blue, After the Event, and the aborted 7″ version of No Time for Tears are all great examples. Even when they’re not quite that exceptional, you’ll still be taken aback by forgotten gems such as Between Two Islands and The Resurrectionist.
As always, there are a couple of special reasons to buy this set: Discoteca (New Version) has, probably for “artistic” reasons, been mixed into The Calm Before the Storm, and We’re the Pet Shop Boys is presented here in its full glory. A couple of tracks surface in full fidelity for the first time, only having previously appeared on DVDs or downloads. And finally, the best reason of all to buy this set: the b-sides to Home and Dry, Sexy Northerner and Always, which are truly exceptional (the latter may be, in my opinion, the best track that PSB have ever recorded).
Overall, another brilliant b-sides collection from PSB. No surprises there, then. As revision for the forthcoming new album Elysium, your homework is to listen to Format a couple of times and remember just how excellent Pet Shop Boys really are.
If you haven’t already got it, grab a copy of the box set version while it’s still on the shelves, as copies seem to be disappearing fast. If you can’t find it, a bit of eBay trawling is surely in order, or as a last resort you might as well just get the download version from iTunes (unfortunately I can’t link to this as it’s not available in the US yet!)