As we last discussed, Duran Duran went in two years from near-obscurity, to chart toppers, and back to near obscurity, on the backs of three albums of widely varying quality. By 1997, EMI had enough. There would be no further [new] Duran Duran albums on the EMI imprint. The same could be said for bassist John Taylor. Actually, he had been wanting to leave a couple of years earlier, but the unexpected success of the “Wedding Album” convinced him to ride the wave out before leaving. The band was now distilled to a trio of LeBon, Rhodes and Cuccurollo. Capitol, their stateside imprint, would give it just one more shot, as would their Japanese Toshiba/EMI label.
Duran Duran – Medazzaland | 1997 – 2
I only ever heard this album a couple of weeks ago, when a friend sent me a review copy for this series. It’s not that I avoided it. It’s that the Japanese copy had an exclusive bonus track [“Ball & Chain”] and for that reason, I was holding out for the Japanese copy I never happened across. As soon as the laser hits the surface, it’s apparent we’re not in Kansas any more. What follows is nothing less than Duran Duran’s deep plunge into their Psychedelic Phase!
The title cut begins with the distorted voice of Nick Rhodes saying “Oh, Medazzaland!” in exactly the same tone and inflection that Andy Partridge used on the Lewis Carrol-esque faux-psychedelia of the narrative parts of the second Dukes Of Stratosphear album, “Psonic Psunspot.” However, I’m not quite certain that Rhodes was trying to be funny. The title cut is seriously psychedelic as Rhodes recounts the calm, rational thoughts of a man with “a problem” who is on the operating table going under the knife and “into Medazzaland.” In an earlier time it might have passed muster as a B-side; that it leads off the album reflects the “what the hell” attitude that suggests that having lost it all [again] they were doing whatever they wanted. At the very least it’s an amusing notice of their new intent, if not much of a song.
The production on this album was by Rhodes and Cuccurollo under their production moniker TV Mania and it’s obvious that Rhodes has discovered Pro Tools. This is music that sounds assembled, not played. The rhythm tracks are mostly drumless, with percussive loops standing in for Duran’s traditionally strong rhythm section. The album is heavily treated with plug-in effects and layering that adds to the sense of dislocated unease redolent of psychedelia. LeBon’s vocals are utterly buried under a wheelbarrow of effects and his phrasing favors heavy legato all over this album suggests that 1967 via 1997 technology is what the band was deliberately aiming for.
All of this and more fills the next track, “Big Bang Generation.” It comes together pretty well and succeeds even though if you were to take a copy of this album back to 1981 in a time machine you would have blown the band’s little minds from here to Liverpool. Rhodes keyboard voice suggests a Vox organ run through an effects pedal so I’m happy with the results. Currucollo’s guitar is heavily effected as well, sounding like nothing more than the ragged “Bo Diddley” riffs of The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now.”
The US single comes next and “Electric Barbarella” is a less than compelling attempt at something light and frothy. Apparently Cuccurollo wanted the band to have a fun sounding single like in their earlier days [that he missed out on] but this effort about a robotic sex toy misses the mark by a mile. Far better is the next track, “Out Of My Mind,” which was a single predating the album in the UK as from the soundtrack of the flop film version of “The Saint.” The track sounds every inch the title theme to a very cinematic experience. Hints of Anton Karras’ zither score for “The Third Man” inform the instrumentation, redolent of cymbalom for that “Old Europe” sound. Even so, there are tablas present that suggest that this song, which was produced in advance of the album itself, was already traveling down the road to psychedelia prior to the group convening for the album. It actually comes off sounding like a far better Bond theme than the group’s chart-topping effort in the mid ’80s.
The rest of the album is largely diffuse psychedelia. Not awful, not great and certainly different. “Silva Halo” is a brief interlude of paranoia and dread. It’s a bad trip, for certain. “Be My Icon” is about a minute longer than it needs to be. “Buried In The Sand” is a song Nick Rhodes wrote about the departure of John Taylor that simply reeks of patchouli. “So Long Suicide” breaks from the program to embody perfectly, the alt-rock sound of its time period, and as such sounds more dated today than the lysergic material surrounding it.
“Who Do You Think You Are” is the band trying for another power ballad hit and failing. The listener won’t have any trouble anticipating the rush of instrumentation on the predictably “rousing” chorus. “Michael You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For” is definitely the odd one out on this record! It’s an intimate ballad directed to Mr. Hutchence as a warning from a friend [LeBon]. It is nothing more than Duran Duran’s Dan Fogelberg song!!! The last track, “Undergoing Treatment,” makes explicit the album’s link to psychedelia particularly since it ends the track and album with the sound of a cell door slamming shut; a direct reference to the intro of The Rolling Stones’ “We Love You” from their psychedelic period thirty years earlier.
This is quite a peculiar record. It’s almost fascinating as a radical experiment, that turned out neither a huge success nor an embarrassing farrago. Indeed, if your goal is psychedelia, then paradoxically, a lack of full cohesion becomes the stylistic glue. Throw enough reverb on it and it all works out just fine.
Duran Duran – Pop Trash | 2000 – 2.5
Duran Duran came limping into the new millennium a few bricks shy of a load. Reduced to LeBon, Rhodes and their second guitarist, the band found themselves cut loose from EMI, who had made swimming pools full of cash from the band for quite a while, but what had they done for them lately? The band found themselves signed to Hollywood Records, the music imprint of the Disney empire. Oh, the indignity of it all! Here was a label whose biggest signing was the back catalogue of Queen. Strap in, the ride’s about to get bumpy.
The scent of patchouli still clings to the spoor of this album, albeit not as strongly as on “Medazzaland.” You wouldn’t know it as the album starts out with Duran Duran’s worst selling single of all time [so far]. “Someone Else Not Me” is another attempt by the band to sup from the power ballad trough, but in spite of the band’s facility with the sort of tune, only crumbs remain in the feeder. The band sound like they’re going through the motions here, not unlike Spandau Balled did when the atypical “True” became their best seller and they attempted to wring some more soup from the dishrag. Okay, so I liked “Ordinary World” and even “Come Undone” but I can’t say the same for this.
“Lava Lamp” is the strongly redolent of the “Medazzaland” sound but the spirit is way lighter here. It’s a fun track with sitar leanings that sounds somewhat… familiar. Wait a minute. That chorus sounds really familiar.
Yeah, I thought so. Readers who are also fans of The Lilac Time, Stephen Duffy’s* folkie band might know the track “Inverna Gardens” that starts off their “Astronauts” album of 1991. The chorus to this song is seriously similar to that of “Lava Lamp.” I actually prepared a SWF file contrasting the two, but WordPress doesn’t allow for Flash embed easily at all, so you’re on your own. Trust me, the resemblance can’t have been a coincidence. After all, Nick Rhodes next move following this album was to record an album with Mister Duffy under the name “The Devils.”
* Sage readers are aware that Stephen Duffy was the original singer in Duran Duran ca. 1978.
“Pop Trash” is almost a record of two minds. There’s the psychedelic thread [“Hallucinating Elvis,” “Lava Lamp,” “Mars Meets Venus”] and the power ballad thread fighting it out for supremacy. I’d say the psychedelic side wins by a large margin. Then there’s “Lady Xanax,” which carries the distinction of being a psychedelic power ballad! Overall, the album has a lightness to it that was missing from “Medazzaland.” There are rare swaths of humor in evidence, and these seem to be a first for the group.
“Pop Trash Movie” was a ballad written for the reformed Blondie, who passed on it. They were crazy to do so since it would have been perfect in their hands, but I guess the thought of lost royalties carried a lot of weight. Simon does his best but listening to the song it’s impossible not to hear Deborah Harry singing it. “Last Day On Earth” is yet another rejected song, this time for the Bond reboot film, “Tomorrow Never Dies.” I can see why the Broccoli organization passed as it’s rockier by a wide margin than the typical Bond theme, but it makes a suitable note on which the album can end.
With this album Duran Duran’s psychedelic phase came to a clattering end. The album has a somewhat broader appeal than the insular “Medazzaland” but is weighed down by lots of mid tempo ballads from hell [“Someone Else Not Me,” “Starting To Remember,” “The Sun Doesn’t Shine Forever”]. It gets a 2.5 rating from me. It makes a different kind of sense following on from “Medazzaland” that I didn’t know at the time. I had this particular album since it was released and hearing the prior album puts a hugely different spin on this portion of the band’s career. The years Duran Duran went psychedelic.
Next: We hit the home stretch as the original lineup reforms…