Friday, August 24, 2012

Duran Duran

Duran Duran were virtual mainstays in the slick and often superficial mainstream music scene of the early 1980s. The original quintet's unique blend of Chic-influenced dance rhythms, David Bowie and Roxy Music-informed glam-rock, edgy post-punk credibility and then-current new-wave pop sensibilities made for a highly radio-friendly, chart-ready sound that attracted virtually every teenager worldwide at the time, making them bona fide teen-pop idols. It’s no overstatement to say that Duran Duran were the purest embodiment of the nascent New Romantic movements, with numerous hit singles coming fast and furious in their heydays.

However, the group splintered in the mid-1980s, citing the usual creative differences and more believably, frustration with the record-release-tour treadmill that had marked the band members’ lives for the past five years or so. This break-up precipitated almost two decades of decidedly lacklustre albums and declining commercial appeal and mass popularity before the original line-up finally reunited in the mid-2000s, riding on the new-wave resurgence of the new millennium. Two adequate studio works were put before the band found their stride again with the release of 2011’s ‘All You Need is Now’, which netted both commercial and critical commendation from all quarters. The highly successful sold-out world tour that followed was the icing on the cake for what appeared to be a triumphant comeback from the doldrums.

Therefore, at this point in time, it does seem fitting to go over the Birmingham group’s three decade-long discography, and present the best bits for critical consideration.

A highly promising maiden effort that spoke of great things to come for these young lads. The appropriately glittery first single ‘Planet Earth’ was a veritable pop gem, the tacky-but-fun ‘Girls on Film’ was perhaps best known for its highly controversial soft-porn video, and ‘Careless Memories’ was marked by some razor-sharp guitar riffs and a cascading synth line. Other highpoints include the mock zombie horror tale of ‘Waiting for the Night Boat’ with its insufferably overdramatic lyrics ("Shadows all through me shudder away, ripple river yellows rising for a breath of breeding, listen to the rising water moan"), the deliberately murky ‘Friends of Mine’, which nicked sound effects from the ‘Blade Runner’ soundtrack, and the spacey instrumental ‘Tel Aviv’, which featured nuanced Middle Eastern synth motifs.

RIO (1982)
The indisputable magnum opus of Duran Duran’s entire repertoire, both artistically realised in the purest sense and commercially acknowledged by all parties. The main attraction of ‘Rio’ lies in its deft combination of copious melodic hooks, pristine production values and astonishingly focused songwriting, as evinced in the three hit singles: the sexily insistent title track, the stylish, poised ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and the melodramatic, unearthly ‘Save a Prayer’, embellished by a circular synth figure. Lesser-known album tracks like the brooding mood piece ‘Lonely in Your Nightmare’, the tightly wound dance-rocker ‘Hold Back the Rain’, the cabalistic, theatrical ‘New Religion’ and the slow-crawling, eerily foreboding tone poem ‘The Chauffeur’ (an existentialist epic marked by chilly synth staccatos and painfully precise drum-machine beats) are also notable in their own ways. Not a bum note anywhere here.

The band decided to incorporate some Goth-rock elements and post-punk sensibilities into the artistic structure of their third album, which made for a musically mixed but still sufficiently effective musical bag. The two peaks of the album were the snarling ‘Union of the Snake’, which had some incisive guitar lines and some amusingly bewildering stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and the relatively straight-ahead new-wave pop smarts of ‘New Moon on Monday’, which had a hooky singalong chorus, However, things had a darker tone elsewhere, as evidenced in the sinister, propulsive ‘Of Crime and Passion’, the atmospheric instrumental ‘Tiger Tiger’, and the arcane atmospherics of ‘The Seventh Stranger’, another turgid meditation on existence not unlike ‘The Chauffeur’, although not quite as effective.

With the departures of guitarist Andy Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor, Duran Duran veered in a sharply leftfield turn for the fourth endeavour. Gone were the inventive synth-pop and new-wave textures that they had become infamous for, and in came a heightened sense of pop-funk that veered dangerously close to plastic soul. The title track was a commendable take on prime-era Chic, with its super-tight funk groove and stuttering horn charts. ‘Skin Trade’ suffered from a surfeit of arch mannerism, but otherwise was a strutting, rhythmic parable about selling out  principles in the music industry. The only concession to the Duran Duran of old was ‘Winter Goes On’, a mournful ballad with ghostly backing vocals and a plaintive oboe line.

After the unmitigated disasters of the preceding two albums (1988’s ‘Big Thing’ and 1990’s ‘Liberty’), which saw the band dabbling in ostentatious arena-rock and vapid dance-rock and failing dismally, it was back to basics for the seventh album. The excess fluff was duly banished, and this resulted in relatively respectable numbers like the world-weary and lyrically candid adult-contemporary ballad ‘Ordinary World’ (which quickly became a fan favourite), the sparkling, nicely paced ‘Come Undone’ (another genuine hit single) and the lively, INXS-styled rocker ‘Too Much Information’. The most underrated composition here was the sun-drenched, bossa nova-informed ‘Breath After Breath’, which featured a soulful second lead vocal from Brazilian pop legend Milton Nascimento.

Following a series of insipid albums in which the remaining trio of Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and John Taylor foolishly (and intentionally) shot themselves in their collective feet with pointless approximations of rap-rock, industrial rock and psychedelia, the other two Taylors rejoined and the primary Fab Five line-up coalesced again. ‘Astronaut’ uncovered a once-great band trying to find its sea legs again, but at least their resurgent artistry is evident in things like the uplifting ‘Reach Up for the Sunrise’, which successfully updated their nascent new-wave sensibilities for the new millennium, the insistent ballad ‘What Happens Tomorrow’, with its choppy guitar chords and hooky chorus, and the appropriately affected ‘Point of No Return’, which brings back some of the trademark airy synth wafts of the ‘Rio’ days.

After a self-indulgent wallow in oddly angular hip-hop and Auto-Tuned pop on 2007's 'Red Carpet Massacre' (a decision no doubt introduced by the hiring of producer Timbaland to bring a more 'contemporary' sheen to the music), the burnished new-wave pop aesthetics that made Duran Duran such a resounding success in those faraway early days were brilliantly recapitulated here, together with the art-rock elements that resounded in the more shadowy tracks on the first three albums. The title track made for a virtuosic introduction to the album, with its intentionally distorted keyboard notes, strutting guitar riffs and Le Bon’s most confident vocals in years, the cool neo-disco grooves of ‘Safe’ featured a vocal cameo from Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic, and the percolating, clattering ‘Girl Panic’ was the band’s best four-to-the-floor composition in two decades. Elsewhere, the poignant ballad ‘Leave a Light On’ made for a bittersweet, acoustically inclined serenade, and the military-styled percussion and futuristic synth tones of the portentous ‘Before the Rain’ featured lyrics that built on the existential dread of ‘The Chauffeur’ and ‘The Seventh Stranger’. The album’s quotient of weirdness was supplied by the multi-segmented, six-minute ‘The Man Who Stole a Leopard’, with its moody keyboard and string section atmospherics adding a believable veneer to a highly fantastical fable.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Duncan Sheik

Duncan Sheik, that erstwhile purveyor of introspective pop from South Carolina, first broke into the scene with 1996's aching tale of one-sided affection, the melodic gem 'Barely Breathing', and has since been widely known to the record-buying public by that sole success. While this might be accurate from a commercial point of view (nothing he has released since then has matched the Top 40 breakthrough status of that particular tune), it would be highly erroneous to assume that the hit single remains his only substantial work. Sheik's eponymous debut album is filled with other maudlin, melancholy but majestic numbers that presented him as a modern-day troubadour to be reckoned with. One of these numbers is the nearly six-minute epic 'Little Hands', which ends the album on a bitterly disheartening way. This composition, which is an even more realistic portrayal of unrequited love than 'Barely Breathing', is marked by several bars of a recurring acoustic-guitar line, plucked with excruciating precision and agonisingly rendered in Sheik's hushed lower-register tenor, simultaneously evoking the spirits of Nick Drake and Billie Holiday. Check out this despair-infused torch song and be prepared to be drowned in its disconsolately downcast atmosphere.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Primal Scream

Primal Scream have always been the most obvious modern-day torchbearers of the inimitable punk spirit that flared so spectacularly in its heyday of the mid to late 1970s. Channelling the sneery, take-no-prisoners approach of seminal punk acts like The Stooges, The Clash and the Sex Pistols, Primal Scream successfully updated punk-rock to a wholly contemporary form and configuration that meshes perfectly with today's post-modern state of affairs. This band of unkempt, combative and assured musical revolutionaries broke down the doors with a toxic mixture of snarling, monster-sized guitar riffs, trippy dub soundscapes, caustic industrial rhythms and a healthy, perpetual anti-establishment stance that has made them contemporaries of other agit-prop ranters like Fugazi and the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine. To get a sampler of the Scream Team's effortless propensity in blending classic rock grooves with updated dance textures, check out 2000's 'Kill All Hippies', a bleak but strong transmission from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, all unearthly electronic waves and unsettling radio samples, backed by a defiantly post-modernist, Oblique Strategies-inspired video.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Church

Hoary old veterans The Church metamorphosed from being one of a handful of college-rock pioneers of the post-punk era to become key luminaries of the Goth-rock and neo-psychedelia community. It is highly interesting to track The Church's musical evolution; it is difficult to believe that the same band that wrote simple three-chord jangle-pop songs in the beginning would later turn out sprawling, abstract epics that sometimes ran over the ten-minute mark.

The major component of The Church's music was the effortless twin-Rickenbacker guitar interplay between Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, which brings to memory the heydays when legendary 12-string guitar bands like The Byrds and Big Star ruled the roost. Of course, none was ever as cabalistic as The Church in terms of production values and lyrical matter. The Church's mysterious and dreamy aura also stemmed from the wilfully obtuse lyrical wordplay of vocalist Steve Kilbey, whose lyrics often sound like stream-of-consciousness thoughts in motion.

In all fairness, it is probably this deliberate artistic strangeness that has kept The Church from ever achieving a mass following. But commercial considerations aside, the cult that surrounds the band is one of the most loyal in the music scene. Therefore, it does seem like high time to run through the more notable releases in the band's extensive discography.

A clever, if somewhat formulaic jangle-pop album, filled to the brim with requisite resonant Rickenbacker riffs. The big single off here was the practised guitar-rocker ‘The Unguarded Moment’, and Kilbey also starts to hone his surreal storytelling skills in things like 'Bel Air' and 'Fighter Pilot Korean War'.

SÉANCE (1983)
Synth-generated textures are introduced here, with several songs actually emphasising the keyboards more than the guitars. Standouts here include the synth-string touched 'Fly', the adroitly seamless guitar-and-keyboard combination 'Electric', and the whimsical 'Electric Lash', marked by synth-marimba lines and a surprisingly effective machine-gun drum-machine bedrock.

HEYDAY (1986)
The Church's richest and fullest-sounding album up to that point, due to new producer Peter Walsh's innovative technique of layering interlocking guitar and synth parts into a seamless whole. The liberal sprinkling of horns and strings also proved to be worthy additions to highlights like the propulsive alternative-biblical parable 'Myrrh', the nicely measured 'Already Yesterday' and the rugged, U2-like 'Tantalised'.

The most accessible and melodic offering in the catalogue, with the addition of a considerable dollop of radio-friendliness to the band's usual abstractness. 'Starfish' was edgier and tougher-sounding than previous Church records: The guitars were more resonant, and there were trace elements of hard rock present in most of the songs. The expansive opener 'Destination', the appropriately snaky 'Reptile', the quietly menacing 'Blood Money' and the elegantly dreamy 'Under the Milky Way' (the band's sole American Top 40 entry) are amongst the many self-assured gems that populate this career milestone.

PRIEST = AURA (1992)
The strangest album title to date, with equally surreal songs, akin to cryptic snapshots taken in some otherworldly landscape found only in LSD-induced nightmares. It was also undoubtedly an incongruous album to release during the supremacy of grunge-rock, but in retrospect, it might well be one of The Church's most realised works. The epic sprawl of 'Aura' set the pace for the arcane, unsettling atmosphere to follow: the album also boasted other highlights like the nervy, shadowy 'Ripple', the percussion-driven 'Lustre' and the deceptively gentle waltz-time 'Swan Lake'. The band even took a tentative foray into indigenous music forms with the mutated English music-hall pastiche ‘The Disillusionist’.

A bit of a mess, this, but still considered as the band's most intricately woven work. However, it did lack the cohesion that was present in previous Church efforts, simply because there was a fair amount of liberal style-hopping going on, without regard for overall integrity. This resulted in a schizophrenic record that took in diverse genres like ambient electronica ('Lost My Touch'), rough-hewn blues-rock ('The Maven'), AOR rock ('Two Places at Once') and mutant folktronica ('Lullaby').

Regarded as a return to form after a number of years of rather pointless experimentation, this assured work saw the band introducing more pronounced prog-rock elements into their basic template. And it did work for the most part, in songs like the mildly rocking 'Anaesthesia', the spacey, elongated 'Tranquillity' and the coldly distant, wintry 'Buffalo'. Song subject matters were the same stock Church material, with lyrics about parallel universes, spirit realms, trippy journeys and just feeling rather strange, generally.

The prog-rock influence is even more conspicuous here, with an almost palpably Floydian feel throughout. Meticulously crafted and possessing a confident artistic identity, this 13th official album practically defines the word "atmospheric". This belief is ably borne out in tracks like the icy, tension-filled 'Numbers', the luxuriously unfolding 'After Everything' and the purposefully languid 'Radiance' (which deals with the Fatima Visitations). The appropriately titled, intensely cabalistic ‘Night Friends’ is a Goth-rock tone poem par excellence.

This cacophonous album basically emerged from a series of freeform jam sessions, making for arguably the heaviest and coarsest collection to date. The opening space-rock blast of 'Song in Space', the layered-guitar wonder 'Telepath' and the roaring, feedback-drenched 'Sealine' all give firm notice that the band can rock out as hard as they want to, when they want to.

An unplugged album with a refreshing difference, this elegantly designed collection has the band incorporating subtle electronic effects, adding some artful vocal trickery, and modifying a few instrumental bits. This makes for a highly intelligent, if somewhat unorthodox, assortment that easily bears up to repeated listenings. Familiar chestnuts like 'Under the Milky Way' and 'Unguarded Moment' do benefit greatly from this innovative treatment, while the handful of new tunes are well on their way to becoming firm fan favourites.

A partial return to the jangle-pop aesthetics of the early era, but wisely leavened with the prog-rock leanings that the band has been indulging in of late. Wonderfully detailed production values breathe life into standouts like the psychedelic soundscape 'Block', the exuberant, chiming 'Easy' and the dramatic, spaced-out 'Space Needle'. Meanwhile, the stately 'Song to Go' flirts with a neo-classical texture, constituting a new musical diversion for the band.

UNTITLED #23 (2009)
Ostensibly the final studio work from the group, and if it was, what a hell of a way to call it a day. Opener ‘Cobalt Blue’ is virtually Church 101, while the taut ‘Deadman’s Hand’ resurrects some of the gauzy edginess that defined the masterful ‘Priest = Aura’. Elsewhere, both ‘Pangaea’ and ‘Sunken Sun’ supply the mandatory space-rock quotient, and the widescreen ‘Operetta’ is a crafty autobiographical summation. The award for most striking track, though, has to go to the mournful dirge ‘On Angel Street’, particularly vivid in its poignant narration of a post-relationship aftermath.