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.


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