The Pet Shop Boys may be the new ABBA.
That suggestion will disturb the Boys if they view ABBA's catchy pop pastries as too lightweight, and it will be mistakenly cheered by Boys detractors who think the remark is meant as a put-down.
ABBA's music in the '70s and early '80s was frequently described as "pleasant but forgettable" by critics who decried its lack of artful, socially conscious edges.
But the Swedish quartet's best singles--sweeping ballads like "Fernando" and dizzy rockers such as "Does Your Mother Know"--were often a seductive combination of hyperactive textures and hyper-emotional vocals.
ABBA registered more than a dozen Top 30 singles and I'd be tempted to play at least half of them on a jukebox. Meanwhile, the Pet Shop Boys are starting to chalk up an impressive list themselves, and the last two--"Always on My Mind" and "What Have I Done to Deserve This"--are also great jukebox tunes.
The Pet Shop singles are among the purchases recommended in the March-to-May edition of Calendar's guide on how to keep up with choice new releases on a $25-a-month record budget.
Tracy Chapman's "Tracy Chapman" (Elektra)--The most acclaimed newcomer so far in 1988, Chapman is a Boston-based singer-songwriter whose single "Fast Car" is a marvelous showcase of her urban-folk style. The album's best tracks offer an intimate and convincing look at characters--welfare families, children terrorized by racism--usually ignored by pop artists. CD available.
"The Heartbeat of Soweto" (Shanachie)--Every self-respecting pop fan knows, at least after "Graceland," the value of a whole album of music from South Africa or Zimbabwe. Too often, however, the exploration stops with a single collection. This sampler, a follow-up to last year's "Indestructible Beat," rewards further study. CD due July 1.
Singles: the 12-inch versions of the Pet Shop Boys' "Always on My Mind" (EMI/Manhattan), a splendid, dance-floor update of the ballad that was a hit six years ago for Willie Nelson, and "What Have I Done to Deserve This," an equally endearing and upbeat track that carries the bonus of a Dusty Springfield guest appearance.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Fair & Square" (Hightone)--Randy Travis is making the best mainstream country music in Nashville these days, but Gilmore (a longtime sidekick of Joe Ely and Butch Hancock) shows how it's done on the honky-tonk hardwood floors of West Texas. Honest and refreshing spirit. CD available.
Graham Parker's "The Mona Lisa's Sister" (RCA)--The veteran English rocker returns with a confident and absorbing album whose most telling moments deal with disappointment and self-doubt. CD available.
Singles: 12-inch versions of Natalie Cole's "Pink Cadillac" (EMI-Manhattan), a remix that is spicier than the album version of the Springsteen song, and Depeche Mode's "Behind the Wheel"/ "Route 66" (Sire), another classic case of auto(mobile)-eroticism in pop.
Prince's "Lovesexy" (Paisley Park)--From the teasing nude cover to the deeply rooted spiritual themes, "Lovesexy" is at once Prince's most playful and serious-minded album. An album-of-the-year contender. CD available.
Run-D.M.C.'s "Tougher Than Leather" (Profile)--Just when there were whispers about upstarts passing Run-D.M.C. by in the competitive world of rap, the rap 'n' roll trio steps forward with its most consistently imaginative and tough-minded album. CD available.
Velvet Elvis' "Velvet Elvis" (Enigma)--The best moments from this Kentucky band combine traces of Tom Petty (the sharp songwriting and vocal drawl) and R.E.M. (the atmospheric arrangements). The pace falls off somewhat on Side 2, but the highlights of this Mitch Easter-produced release persuade you this is a band worth getting to know. CD available.