Record Review: Stephen Duffy – The Ups + Downs DLX RM [part 2]

stephen duffy - icingonthecakeUK7AGF[continued from previous post]

Side two of the original album contained the “pull-out-all-the-stops” hit single as was common in the day when people actually listened to albums and needed a jolt for their possibly flagging attention. The piece was certainly poppy, with much of the synth/pop/funk juice common to the mid-80s. Guy Pratt was tearing up his thumb on the bass line, that’s for certain! Although the song retains much of the winsome charm redolent of Duffy’s songs of this early period, the overworked arrangement; what with bright digital synths and backing vocalists fighting it out for supremacy, leaves me somewhat breathless at its end.

When “The Darkest Blues” next appeared, the fact that it was actually a blues number was more charming. Albeit a blues from some alternate universe where AON/Fairlight® backing vocals were often cheek-by-jowel with gently wheezing harmonica and guitar. Barring the drum machine and vocal samples [it must be said that the drum programming had a particularly light touch from Duffy’s hand] it more clearly than ever telegraphed the Lilac Time future that lay in store for Duffy in a few years of peripatetic genre-swapping in order to find that elusive custom fit so necessary for proper pop artists like himself.

While  the album had two hit singles and one also-ran [“She Makes Me Quiver”] to herald it, by far my favorite song here was the impeccable and thrilling pop of “Be There” which surely would have been a triumphant hit single in anything other than This Fallen World. It began coldly with the lowing cellos sawing away rhythmically for a hook that just wouldn’t quit immediately challenged by bright synth horns before Duffy’s insouciant declaration of ardor from whence came the album’s title rose to the occasion and delivered pop nirvana as produced perfectly by Booker T. Jones.

Nicky Holland’s [ex-Ravishing Beauties] superb string arrangements were the co-star here vying for the spotlight against Duffy’s assured, warm vocals. Her pizzicato touches on the second verse superlatively captured the heart-on-his-sleeve sensibility that Duffy was putting across here with serious verve and sensitivity. The end result was so fantastic, that I really wish that Duffy had teamed up with Holland instead of the overrated [and overplaying] Nigel Kennedy for his “Music In Colours” album of 1993.

For an astonishing contrast, the next track [also produced by Jones] was my least favorite track on the album. The only one, that 31 years later, really grates on my ears. Suffice to say “Believe In Me” could have slotted right next to Phil Collins’ and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover” in the hellspace of mid-80s pop. In fact, the vibe is so similar, that I can almost sing the lyrics of the Collins/Bailey pop juggernaut to the backing track of  this song. Best missed.

Fortunately, the album wrapped up with a song that has really grown on me in the ensuing years since its release. “The World At Large Alone” was a downbeat piano/strings ballad with more excellent support from Ms. Holland and the glory of a whistling solo in the song’s middle eight. I wish that the real horns here of Chris Dean and Steve Sidwell had been used throughout the album. The queasy blend of real and synthetic horns was probably owing to the patchwork production of the album [four production teams] and the grim realities of 10 Records budget. The song as presented here had been designated a remix, but it really doesn’t sound too far from the mark from the original CD from 1985 that I also have. I’m guessing that balance and EQ were the only ex post facto touches here as the arrangement sounds very similar.


Next: …Mission Impossible


About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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