When the time came for Duran Duran to follow up their moderately successful reunion album “Astronaut” from 2004, no one could have expected how the road ahead would be fraught with such drama. In late 2005 the band began recording tracks with producer Michael Patterson for an album mooted with the title “Reportage.” Then there arose conflicting reasons as to why the album was tabled; Epic didn’t hear a single, Andy Taylor was getting antsy again. Ultimately, Taylor left his guitar position with the band for a second time and that meant that “Reportage” for what it’s worth, went bye bye down the memory hole. Taylor’s lawyer saw to that. The band had no other choice than to apply themselves anew to a completely different group of songs known as “Red Carpet Massacre.” Eyebrows were raised as it transpired that Justin Timberlake and Timbaland were acting as producers on the project.
Let me state that the name “Justin Timberlake” is one I’ve heard of but not heard. To me he is the guy who was dancing with Janet Jackson when she had a “wardrobe malfunction.” Even I had a hard time remaining blissfully unaware of that phenomenon, and I think he was in one of those Orlando-based boy bands, but I don’t know which one. As for Timbaland, I’ve only ever heard his name as mentioned in Paul Lester’s liner notes to the excellent Frankie Goes To Hollywood 2xCD “Twelve Inches” wherein he makes the point of comparison between Trevor C. Horn and Timbaland as being the “go to” producers of their respective times. Obviously, I had never heard music by either Timberlake or Timbaland.
Duran Duran – Red Carpet Massacre | 2007 – 3.5
Okay. So I’m a vacillating Duran Duran fan of long standing. It only makes sense that I know plenty of other, similar fans. I even know some seriously hardcore fans to whom the band means a lot more. They all warned me off of “Red Carpet Massacre.” So I listened to them and never made the move. It was sometime last month when I kicked off the ROCK GPA® concept with a retrospective on Icehouse, when a friend who straddles the worlds of Duran Duran and Icehouse fandom, like myself, said that he could hardly wait to read one on Simple Minds or Duran Duran. I replied that I had heard neither “Medazzaland” nor “Red Carpet Massacre,” which he took great pains to warn me of. He then set me up with review copies so that I could undertake the last week or so of postings to this blog. What he [or I] couldn’t have imagined was how much I’d take to this widely reviled album like a duck to water!
The opening track, “The Valley,” sets the pace immediately. It sounds like a demo in comparison to every other Duran Duran album you may have ever heard. The sound has been pared to the bone as a skeletal rhythm bed that bears no trace of Roger or John Taylor whatsoever, chugs away like something that some kid may have put together in Garage Band. Over a relentless, methodical beat, the focus of the arrangement is straight on Simon LeBon’s vocals carrying the melody, and rather strongly at that. At the midpoint there’s finally a tasty bass solo from John Taylor followed by the instrumental bridge of the song, at which point Nick Rhodes takes the melody into new directions until Simon returns for the final chorus. This cut sounds like nothing in the band’s long history. It sounds like the band was subjected to recombinant DNA technique and re-assembled by someone who had no knowledge of their past history. Huge swaths of the Duran Duran DNA, which is highly mutable, are simply missing from this effort… and I love it!
This album is the sound of a nearly 30 year old band taking huge steps away from their comfort zone and it’s exactly what excites me about my favorite groups, though it rarely happens. This album reminds me very much of a similar album that one of my favorite bands made about eight years ago. Simple Minds had gotten bogged down and lost direction. In 2002 they released an album called “Cry” that was also a unique jolt to the familiar listener. Instead of having 12 tracks co-written by vocalist Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill, Kerr teamed up with Italian dance producers in his adopted homeland to write that album, which saw them moving away from tired rock to more of a pop sound with a vastly wider range of sounds than usual for the group. It was a hugely different sounding album for the band that didn’t look backward at all. It remains my favorite album from Simple Minds for the last 15 years. I feel much the same way about this Duran Duran album.
The title cut is sardonic stripped down techno punk with lots of square wave synth sounds from Rhodes perfectly complimented by Simon’s biting lyrics and delivery. It’s followed by “Nite Runner” a track produced with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. Hell, Duran Duran didn’t have anything to do with the cut! Tim Mosley made the music bed. This is a track that features Simon LeBon sharing vocals with Timberlake & Timbaland. And it’s sleek and catchy as hell. There…I said it.
The bittersweet single “Falling Down” has a Timberlake production and music bed. It offers something close to familiar territory for fans of the band as it is another one of their lighter waving ballads that doesn’t suck. The clean “guitar” lines carry the winsome melody over the music box characteristics of the backing track. The melody will stick in the cranium like well-chewed bubblegum.
The next track sounds like nothing else yet heard on this record. “Box Full O’Honey” opens with just Simon LeBon and Dom Brown’s acoustic guitar right up front as Rhodes’ piano joins the fray, followed by the rhythm section. It almost sounds like an old track like “Lonely In Your Nightmare” stripped of synthesizers and arranged acoustically…and it’s simply fantastic! Has Simon LeBon ever sounded this good before? His vocals on this album are a treat from start to finish and the production does him many favors by largely eschewing excessive filters or effects. “Medazzaland, this ain’t! “Honey” is as dry as he’s ever sounded on record and he’s singing in his complete comfort zone on this album. I’m just not used to him not straining or reaching for notes he shouldn’t be trying to attain! More please!
The second track by Timbaland comes next in the running order. “Skin Divers” has a dry claptrack rhythm with ethereal melodies snaking through it. Timbaland carries the counterpoint vocal hook and it’s got barbs on it an inch long. The instrumental bridge features a synth solo that reminds me of Talking Heads, circa “Fear Of Music.”
“Tempted” has another patented freeze-dried rave rhythm courtesy of Rhodes. It’s yet another great vocal performance from LeBon. After he sings “finally” at one point I was just waiting for a sample of CeCe Peniston to come in on the next beat! This is some kicking groove monster from the Double Duran. Parts of the backing rhythm bed strongly suggest the essence of “Opal Krusch” from Billy MacKenzie’s “Outernational” album. If there were any justice there would have been an old school extended version of this for the club floor.
Next comes “Tricked Out,” Duran Duran’s first instrumental since “Tiger Tiger” and have they ever sounded as if they were having this much fun before? My god, this track simply reeks of Joe Meek DNA! The harpsichord/theremin synth voices that thrust and parry are hugely enjoyable and completely light-hearted for this band. The mad scientist bridge to the track sounds like a cheesy 60s sci-fi theme gone batty. Incredible!
The final Timbaland track, “Zoom In,” has another Tim Mosely music bed. Like most of this album it doesn’t sound like anything more than what’s now called the “minimal synth” style in retrospect. As favored by Continental Europeans and a few New Yorkers ca. 1980-1983, the synths are sharp and spiky. The rhythms are simplistic, relentless and stripped down. Think “Men Without Hats” circa “Antarctica” and you will have hit the sonic bullseye for much of this record and certainly this song.
My favorite song on this album follows. “She’s Too Much” is simply the band’s redux of The Cure’s “The Walk” over which Simon sings his most tender lyric ever. This song breaks my heart every time I listen to it. I have listened to this song on repeat for over an hour. Have Duran Duran ever released such a gorgeous song? Well, they did release “Breath After Breath” seventeen years ago, but I like this even more!
“Dirty Great Monster” sounds to me like something from The Beatles “white album.” Simon Willescroft has a shocking sax solo at the song’s end. After the peak of the previous song, it comes as a bit of a comedown. “Last Man Standing” has faint echoes of “Save A Prayer” as it fades the album out to an elegiac ending. This album has forced its way into my consciousness like few other albums I’ve heard in recent years. Only the new OMD album, “History of Modern,” has been such compulsive listening for me in untold years. Virtually every one of the album’s tracks, save the last two, have been favorites of mine that have accompanied my waking up from slumber for the last month… and the last two aren’t bad by a long shot! For this reason, I’m re-assigning a 3.5 rating to this album up from the 3 I gave it a week or so ago, when I made the initial graph. I can see this album perhaps eventually reaching a four rating over time. Quite frankly, this is my favorite Duran Duran album since “Notorious.” It’s just edged out “The Wedding Album” to my ears if only because it takes so many chances and at least to me, succeeds wildly.
Give me an album with an eclectic sound, great pacing and sequencing and cap it off with Simon LeBon’s best vocals ever and I’m inclined to love it. I have to say his vocals can be very off putting to me over the years. I consider him the weak link in the Duran Duran chain but certainly not on this album. There’s none of his howlingly bad lyrics either. His clear, powerful vocal presence carries this album through a wide ranging gamut of styles like a champ. I also greatly enjoyed the 16 track or less sound of the production. It gave the songs a direct, punchy impact that is too often lost in a modern recording environment. I found it exciting but I was gobsmacked that Duran Duran fans hate this record. The facts don’t lie. They dropped this album like a rock, and then Epic dropped the band after just two outings. Their new [self-released] album just came out on iTunes last week. I don’t have the full “All You Need Is Now” download album yet, so I can’t comment on it. It’s said to be the album they “should have made following Rio.” What I’ve heard so far doesn’t sound that facile.
Duran Duran – All You Need Is Now | 2010 – 3.5
I do have the title cut and first single, which was a free download, and frankly, it doesn’t sound terribly different from “Red Carpet Massacre” to my ears with one glaring difference. You can sure as hell hear John and Roger Taylor in evidence on the new recording. Their presence on “Red Carpet Massacre” was minimized to the point of near zero save for a single bass solo and the occasional tattoo of acoustic drums used sparingly for seasoning. Additionally, the chorus to the new song is rich and full sounding in contrast to the stripped down minimal synth stylings of the verses. It’s a great track and a half-step backward to Duran Duran’s comfort zone that still retains much of the adventure and extremism of their last album.
The last album has proven that there’s still some life in that old war horse Duran Duran. The fans may hate what they do but their dogged determination is perhaps what keeps me interested after all of these years and all the changes they’ve been through. My wife says that they use the technique of “intermittent conditioning” to maintain my interest long after it should have, by all rights, waned. I prefer to think of it as their erratic humanity. That the obnoxious chart toppers of the “Ragged Tiger” era could come back from that artistic brink time and time again while scaling new heights, followed by periodic new lows as well, suggests a mortality I wouldn’t have ascribed to the band following their scaling of the charts following “Rio.”
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