|YaK:: WebLog #535 Topic : 2006-10-18 02.41.22 matt : album review : Duran Duran, "Astronaut"
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Anyone who knows me knows I'm a big fan of Duran Duran, specifically of their later work from the late 80s and onward. Always changing while retaining their core sound and pushing their stylistic boundaries, the thing I liked the most is that you never knew what was going to come next. I can still remember when their Thank You album came out and seeing the video for White Lines. I thought they were playing a video by a different band; the sound (and look) was so different, and not just because it was a cover and the original artists accompanied them on it. I had the same jolt of surprise listening to the opening (and title) track of Medazzaland , which is probably my favorite album of theirs to date. (I even wrote a review of it for XY magazine in 1997.) The progression between these songs and albums is fairly unpredictable, which is maybe why they didn't sell as well as their 1992 resurgence album did.
After splitting with Capitol Records (and their management) in 1997, the band at the time ( Warren Cuccurullo , Nick Rhodes, and Simon LeBon) created a new album ( Pop Trash , released 2 years after recording was done) without a label to publish it. Making money on sold-out tours year after year performing the new material, it was eventually picked up by Hollywood Records (owned by Disney). Unfortunately, that record did not do very well and didn't receive very much support from Hollywood Records. I met one of their A&R guys backstage in 2001, asking what the next single would be and he was seemingly confused by the question, which I thought didn't bode well. Between the difficulty in getting a label to take the album, and the poor sales due to lack of support from Hollywood Records, they made a business decision to try and save the stock of their falling franchise: reform the original band. (Frankly, I think they may have prepared for this while recording Pop Trash; it contains several songs Warren and Nick wrote and shopped around, almost as if they were clearing out their backing store before a reformat).
Reforming the original band meant that Warren Cucurullo, who had provided the core song writing talent and musical leadership for the band up until that point, was out. I cannot begin to describe how much of a shame this is, given the current album by the original band, but the saving grace is that Warren's work since leaving the band has been really awesome. (Even so, I really hope he and Nick Rhodes work together again soon.) With Warren out of the picture, and a horde of lawyers in place to negotiate terms, the original band reformed and started jamming out material in late 2001 -- without a record deal in place.
Leading up to the release of "Astronaut" , they started with Nile Rodgers producing, then for some reason he was out of the picture. You can still definitely hear his influence on some of the tracks of the album ("Sunrise" in particular). At the end, there were several producers in and out at various points (which makes for entertaining liner notes), and the album's sound reflects this. Once of the producers, Jason Nivens, was hired because he was able to breathe life into the demo of "Sunrise" which appeared on the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy soundtrack . With so many cooks in the kitchen, and the core songwriter gone, where does this leave the album? That's not entirely fair, of course; these guys aren't ignorant when it comes to music or production. That being said, where does it leave the album???
The main thing to notice is that many of the developments in Duran Duran's sound over the last decade are mostly gone or much weaker: odd chord changes, non-standard time signatures, tempo changes, etc. The "world music" element present in tracks like "Breath After Breath" (from 1992's self-titled album) and "Buried in the Sand" (from 1997's Medazzaland album) is only hinted at with "Sunrise", which echoes of Russian influence. (I wonder if it was inspired by the pre-re-formed band's small tour of Russia in 2001?) For those of us who got the Pop Trash import CD , some bits and pieces on the Astronaut album can be recognized from the "Prototypes" track on that CD which is outtakes from the Pop Trash sessions. Does this make the album weak or bad? Well..
The album isn't a total let down, but it is definitely a step down. The energy of the original band is undeniable and comes through really well on some tracks. Other tracks have some interesting bits, but ultimately just don't hang together. The opening track, "Sunrise", evokes Rio with its opening. A good anthemic dance number, it's only problem is that it goes on a little too long and repeats the same theme too many times. But, unlike other tracks on the album, the music and lyrics are consistent and it hangs together. The next track, "Want You More!" keeps up the energy with a simple but catchy keyboard riff and a great chorus. There's nothing to this song musically, it's just good pop music and the production on it dresses it up just enough (but not annoyingly so) so you can't see through it. Like Sunrise, the instrumentation and lyrics are consistent and cohesive.
The same can't be said for "What Happens Tomorrow", the second single from the album. The song starts out promising, with a chord progression that echoes the sound the band developed over the course of the 1990s. The opening verse lyric is pretty good too -- it's the bridge where everything falls apart. In a vain attempt to recreate great songs like "Ordinary World" and "Out Of My Mind", the new band just doesn't have the chops to make it hang together. The lame transitions, lyrics that go off into lala-land after the initially coherent verse/bridge, and the weak theme that is annoying repeated make for a bad song. Actually, it's not incredibly horrible; it's just that I've come to expect more from Duran Duran at this point. Even so, at least the instrumentation is consistent.
The low point of the album happens to be the title track. "Astronaut" is a mish-mash of a weak guitar riff, hooks, lyrics, and arrangement. I really have no idea what they were thinking putting this on the album, never mind making it the title track. If it has one saving grace, it's the poetic line: "reaching over and I touch your skin / a kind of strange light you emit", which reminds me of the song "Midnight Sun" from their 1997 Medazzaland album. The middle is sort of neat, and the song was seemingly built out from it. It also seems to echo of "Hallucinating Elvis" from their 2001 album, Pop Trash; except that had a strong, driving guitar riff, a catchy chorus, and awesome building polyrhythms to keep it interesting. With "Astronaut", all the production glue and overdubs in the world couldn't hold this track together -- it just doesn't have any substance to hang on to.
The next track, "Bedroom Toys", is a little better. Musically, it's interesting and hangs together quite well overall. Like "What Happens Tomorrow", the lyrics are consistent at first, but then go off into stream of consciousness lala-land. It's almost as if the rest of the band weren't allowed to kick Simon in the ass or fill in lyrics as on previous albums. The lack of this best-of-breed effort is very obvious, and that's what makes this song half as good as it could have been. "Nice", the next track, is similar. Musically, it's pretty solid with sixteenth notes on the drums making things interesting where it could be quite boring. The rhythm guitar riffs and hooks actually work well, and the verse lyrics hang together. The chorus lyrics, which repeat a little too often for their lack of a hook, are a little irritating but the rest of the song carries it over. The one downside is they felt the need to randomly introduce an acoustic guitar into the arrangement in a few places, making things sound oddly inconsistent. "Taste the Summer" follows "Nice", which makes perfect sense as they have the same largely rhythm-driven hooks. It's great to hear Simon reaching a bit and being front and center to do it. The chorus has a great hook, and the housey little production additions help make it quirky but accessible. Why this wasn't a single, I really don't know.
The up-tempo tracks seemingly end at this point. The good news is that none of these are as bad as "What Happens Tomorrow". The bad news is that they all, once again, fall just shy of being truly great. "Finest Hour" is the best of the bunch, a consistent lyric and instrumentation and a solid song overall. I saw they opened with this a few times while playing live, and I think that's great -- it shows they still have some testicular with which to challenge their audience a bit. "Chains", which echoes of Arcadia and "Midnight Sun" from their Medazzaland album, doesn't fare as well. It sounds like it was built from the cool lyric that was ultimately used as the bridge: "but the life just can't let go / it's a chain that cuts across my soul / anchoring in this world". Alas, the song built around it just doesn't hold up and is pretty generic sounding and weak. I've read other reviews that claim it's a "stretch" -- it's not. "One of Those Days" is also extremely weak, sounding like two jam sessions crammed together with vocal tweaking and other production tricks to try and make it sound passable. It sort of reminds me of "Be My Icon" (again, from their Medazzaland album) because of the grungy vocal, but doesn't even begin to touch that great song.
One of the highlights of the album for me is "The Point of No Return", only because I can hear what they were trying to do within the confines of the album. On the DualDisc, there's a little "documentary" of the recording process and for a little clip one of the producers is telling someone not to complicate things and to stick to what people want to hear. I don't know if they were talking about this song, but it sure sounds like it. This song sounds like it wants to break out into polyrhythms and a wall-of-sound guitar, but gets the balls cut off before it gets a chance. That being said, it's a solid lyric and vocal on both the verse and chorus, with the synchronized synth and real drums laying what I was hoping would be a more complicated rhythm. The guitar seemingly doesn't know what to do in the arrangement and only makes a few uninspired appearances. I wish that they would have trusted the audience enough to challenge them and actually taken this song to the heights it was aspiring to. Again, a good song, I'm just disappointed because I can imagine what it could have been. "Still Breathing" is similar, but a little weaker. Simon's voice is prominent in the mix, with a repeating progression crescending with some interesting atmospherics. the arrangement is a little lop-sided, with strings coming in out of nowhere at the end. Still a good song, but I'm once again stuck thinking it sounds too constrained and wants to be a bit more Cuccurullo-influenced.
On the DualDisc is the video for "Sunrise" and some EPK-like material for the filming of it, which isn't very interesting. The snippets in the "documentary" of the band in the studio are great, and I wish they would have shown more of that. The 16-bit Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of the album is kind of cool, but unfortunately showcases some of the cut and paste arrangment lop-sidedness mentioned earlier. There's no instrumental mix or 24-bit 5.1 mix. The video for "What Happens Tomorrow" isn't on here either, which doesn't matter much as it's not that interesting, but is strange.
Overall, I'd say get the regular CD rather than the DualDisc unless you absolutely require the fullness of compressed bass from the LFE channel in your high-end subwoofer. If this is your first Duran Duran CD purchase in a while, fuck this and get Medazzaland instead. I sincerely hope their next offering uses the chops they developed in the 1990s more -- it was the only thing keeping them interesting, and this album under delivered in that respect.
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