Monday, December 13, 2010

Duran Duran: All You Need is Now

Originally published by PopMatters on December 20, 2010

For over a year, Duran Duran and producer Mark Ronson have compared the recording of the music that is about to hit iTunes as All You Need Is Now to the band’s early ‘80s output. Whether they’ve done the job really depends upon how you interpret all that pre-game prattle. But more on that in a moment, because when a band’s been around for more than 30 years, a little perspective can go a very long way.

The members of Duran Duran have so much tonsorial-based ozone depletion in their collective histories, it may seem odd to compare their career trajectory to that of a gritty, woozy prize fighter. But the truth is, Duran Duran have had their asses handed to them time and again by critics and an often disinterested public when it comes to their recorded works since the first few albums. Every now and again an “Ordinary World” pops up and makes everyone take notice, but for the most part Duran Duran has fought the battle for contemporary relevancy to exponentially smaller crowds.

It’s to their great credit that Duran Duran haven’t just taken their lumps and simply allowed themselves to become a greatest hits touring act, with maybe a stretch run in Vegas or Reno or some other place where “Hungry Like the Wolf” could be used to cross-market a casino buffet. They’ve certainly got the back catalogue to support the notion, and their concerts often reflect the struggle between knowing the greatest hits is what got them to where they are and new songs half the crowd doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of.

Now, Duran Duran have returned looking way better than they’ve got any right to, and they’re still as stubborn as ever, still refusing to sit down and shut up and stop making new music. And they’ve still got a nasty left hook, apparently, and a dancer’s gait a young Muhammad Ali would have been proud of. But first, the single, which arrives nearly two weeks before the album which bears its name on December 8: “All You Need Is Now” is an odd choice for an introductory, or at least it seems that way during the plodding verse, which comes on like a pair of mid-period Duran singles that sunk like a stone, “Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over)” and “Out of My Mind”. But the chorus, for the first time in a thousand albums, really does feel like that Duran Duran from days of yore, hints of “New Moon on Monday” buried deep within its DNA.

“Blame the Machines” does recall the ‘80s, but not Duran Duran’s ‘80s. It’s 21st century electro-pop, but with little debt to the band’s own history. It’s a forgivable misstep, primarily because it’s such good fun. And perhaps that’s where Ronson’s really earned his pay (or points or whatever.) Though it certainly can’t have hurt that he’s gotten Messrs. Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor and Taylor to dig their old timey instruments from the backs of their impossibly deep closets, but the real magic the producer and self-avowed superfan has wrought is not the sound of the old Duran Duran, but rather the spirit.

For the first time in a very long time, Duran Duran sounds like they’re having fun, like they remember what it means to actually be Duran Duran. It certainly wasn’t this apparent onAstronaut, the 2004 “reunion” album recorded with Fab Five guitarist Andy Taylor temporarily returning to the fold alongside John (bass) and Roger (drums) Taylor, who if you’ve misplaced your copies of Star Hits aren’t actually related. It wasn’t there in 2007, when the quartet teamed up with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on the underrated but ultimately misguided Red Carpet Massacre. But it’s here, and maybe all you really do need is now.

Make no mistake, the gentlemen involved in the making of All You Need Is Now do their level best to remind you of Duran Duran’s earliest works: “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”, a grandiose and stunning number which features guest vocals by a reserved, milkshake-free Kelis evokes elements of “The Chauffeur”, “Tel Aviv” and the original single version of “My Own Way”, while “Leave a Light On” recalls “Save a Prayer” if for no other reason than it’s the first time in three decades the band has put together a ballad nearly as good. “Runway Runaway” feels a bit like “Last Chance on the Stairway” by way of an early Charlatans album cut, and if you’ve no idea what any of these references mean, the months of often repetitive hyperbole from Ronson and the members of Duran Duran probably didn’t mean anything to you anyway.

Kelis isn’t the only guest star pitching in; Ana Matronic (Scissor Sisters) comes on all Debbie Harry with a downtown white girl rap on the disco-funk of “Safe”, and Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) throws some indie cred into the mix with string arrangements. But even with all the party inclusive bells and whistles, and even with Ronson (and possibly keyboardist Nick Rhodes) getting cute with with samples and special whiz-bang effects, none of it sounds forced or out of place. It’s also a relief to find that most of the tracks here—especially throbbing dance numbers like “Girl Panic!”—are… err… Taylor-made for the stage. They’ll fit comfortably alongside those golden oldies and probably won’t lead to too many exasperated bathroom breaks from the peripheral fans who only came to hear “The Reflex” or “that one that goes doo-doo-doo-doo.”

All You Need Is Now isn’t Son of Rio, but it’s the best album Duran Duran has released since then, a collection that manages what their best material always has, blending art with grand gestures and popcraft. It’s nine songs full of the promise and thrill of 1981-83. But even more than Ronson and Duran Duran have let on, it’s also an album clearly in debt to the future, a sleek and sexy future where a guy in his early 50’s “driving up the Autobahn” is still the same superhero who wrestled hot chicks in a Sri Lankan swamp all those years ago. This is the sound of time stood still, of a feeling of reckless and sophisticated abandon launched decades forward without skipping a beat.

9 out of 10

The Bees: Every Step's a Yes

Originally published by PopMatters on December 9, 2010

For American fans, the Bees are something of a cruel enigma. First of all, there was already a Bees, so the Bees over here are called a Band of Bees, which is apparently confounding to iTunes but easily fixed on iPods. The Bees have never played live in America, so while fans in the UK have had ample opportunities to hear the Isle of Wight band’s skewed melting pot melodies up close and personal, the best we’ve gotten are a handful of sorta cruddy videos which might as well be that old Sasquatch footage for all it purports to reveal. Compounding the issue is the fact that we seem to get the new Bees albums—which already only come around once every couple of years—several months at least after fans in other parts of the world get them. I’m talking “official” releases rather than “grey area” downloads, which I suppose are sort of egalitarian in that we can all steal it at the same time no matter where we happen to lay our heads.

Don’t do that with Every Step’s a Yes, though. Because no matter how long you have to wait to hear it, if you pay actual money for the Bees’ fourth album, maybe they’ll think it’s worth packing all their crazy instruments into a hundred steamer trunks and playing some shows on this side of the Atlantic for a change. Plus, the album is a total joy, and unlike so much of the flotsam and jetsam calling itself rock and/or roll these days,Every Step’s a Yes is worth your hard earned dough, even at impatient import prices.

The first gentle toe in the water was “Silver Line”, a delicate and plucky number with haunting organs and haunting background vocals and a tingly feeling like sitting in a bathtub filled with warm honey. Then came the single, “I Really Need Love”, which also opens the album. And I don’t know if you have love or want love, but this really is how it might feel, what with the acoustic strumming and the little bridges with their soaring harmonies and desperate pauses.

What you loved about the Bees from albums past is also there, too. Witness “Winter Rose”, a psychedelicarribean link that draws a line all the way back to their debut, Sunshine Hit Me, right down to the tin-can guitar, cavernous organ, and bubble-pops. They’re not a tenth as aggro, but the Bees share a wide-eyed approach to various musical genres with the Clash. They’re also every bit as good at incorporating those sounds into their own mix without it sounding forced or phony. Even without their splendid mixtape release, The Bees Present: The Sound Selection, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine these guys having wildly diverse record collections. Any band that can pull off a Simon & Garfunkel-meets-the Monkees song like “Silver Line”, come over all Pink Floyd on “Island Lover Letter”, and close out an album with a dub Sesame Street song like “Gaia” is worth at least a happy listen.

Fans of any band have their favorite albums, and it’s too early to tell where Every Step’s a Yes will fall when compared to Sunshine Hit MeFree the Bees, or Octopus. But it’s to the Bees’ credit that they consistently release albums so strong that there’s no clear way of answering that question.Every Step’s a Yes is more than just a worthy chapter in the Bees’ astonishing collected works. It’s also a single achievement I’d put up against just about anything else released by anyone this year. And sooner or later people in America will have the (legal) opportunity to discover that for themselves.

9 out of 10

The 70 Best albums of 2010 - PopMatters

Originally published by PopMatters on December 13, 2010

#22 - Gorillaz: Plastic Beach

When Damon Albarn puts together a mixtape, he really goes the extra mile. Three albums in to his Gorillaz career, the Blur frontman isn’t treating his cartoon cavalcade like a side project anymore. While its predecessor, Demon Days certainly sharpened the concept, Plastic Beach perfected it, bringing on a host of all-star associates to create one of the year’s best albums. The percentage of albums featuring cameos from Snoop Dogg over the past decade must be as staggeringly high as Snoop by his own admission often is, but his choice as the host of Plastic Beach is as inspired as the segue into the hip-hop/Arabic mash-up of “White Flag”. And therein lies the beauty of Plastic Beach, an album made by many hands, yet with enough of a common thread to not only keep the whole together, but also allow it to work fully in a live setting with a band that boasts half of the Clash among its ranks.

Reading more like an idle flip through the record collection of someone you wouldn’t mind taking a road trip with, Plastic Beach features collaborations with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Lou Reed, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Little Dragon and Bobby Womack. The latter sounds a million miles away from his halcyon days in the soulful ‘70s, but his voice has matured into something both rougher and more beautiful. Indeed, Womack’s work on the album’s first single, “Stylo”, and on its emotional denouement, “Cloud of Unknowing”, are possibly the best performances on an album hardly lacking in them.

It’s possible Albarn sleeps maybe two hours a night, as he’s apparently recorded a Gorillaz follow-up on an iPad while on the road with the band, has plans early in the year for new Blur material and is nearly finished with an Afrobeat album with Flea and Tony Allen. In the meantime, there’s Plastic Beach, a journey that still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the moment it dropped.

The 60 Best Singles of 2010 - PopMatters

Originally published by PopMatters on December 6, 2010

#20 - Blur: "Fools Day"

It came quietly, the sounds of “Parklife” shouted by tens of thousands in London’s Hyde Park still sending shivers up and down our spines. Blur’s reunion for a handful of shows in 2009 engendered enough good vibes among the Britpop quartet that their “love of all sweet music” apparently left them wanting more. 

Lyrically, “Fool’s Day” reads like a mundane day-in-the-life tale like the Beach Boys’ “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” or “Blue Jay Way” by the Beatles, but with a considerably more satisfying emotional payoff. And ultimately, that’s what “Fool’s Day” is meant to be, a celebration of routine, and of knowing when something is good enough to not let go.

“Fool’s Day” was released in conjunction with Record Store Day in April, a single track in limited vinyl units followed by a free download. “We just can’t let go,” sings Damon Albarn, and it’s hard to argue as the music hovers, shifting back into another verse before the return of Graham Coxon’s gorgeous guitar reminds everyone why Blur’s final album, Think Tank, wasn’t quite what we hoped for.

“Fool’s Day” is four friends finding one another down the road, comfortable in themselves and where they are, in their own legacy and in the pure pleasure of playing music together. There’s more on the horizon for Blur, at least according to Albarn. If it’s half as warm a return as “Fool’s Day,” it’ll be welcomed with open arms.