Monday, April 18, 2011

Gee, That Sounds Familiar... (The Four Songs)

Speaking as an amateur musicologist, I'd like to share with you a fun little piece of music knowledge. In fact, not a lot of people know this, but every song ever written - EVER - is basically a variation of four songs that already exist. They are (in no particular order) as follows:

* Maple Leaf Rag - Scott Joplin
* Symphony #40 in G Minor (Molto Allegro) - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
* Disco Duck - Rick Dees
* Greensleeves - Traditional

Yes, it's true. Any song you can name can be traced directly to one of these four songs. "Ramblin' Man" by the Allmans? Greensleeves with a little hick attitude. "Too Shy" by Kajagoogoo? It's clearly the Maple Leaf Rag with spikier hair and nifty synthesizers. AHHHH, you hear it now that I've pointed it out, don't you? It's so obvious in retrospect.

It should be noted that some esteemed music theorists have argued that "Missing" by Everything But the Girl needs to be added to the list, but those people are major sh*theads, because that song is really just Mozart's Symphony played backwards (badly) with dumb lyrics.

Now that you know this amazing fact you can whip it out at your next party to stun and amuse your friends - instead of whipping out what you usually do to stun and amuse them.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Duran Duran, "All You Need Is Now" (What's the Date Again? 1981 or Thirty Years on?)

AWWWWWWWWWWWW YEAH!!!! Look out you Lumineer-lovin' mother-****s, because Duran MOTHER-F-ING DURAN are back, and you better SAVE A PRAYER because they're breaking out the blue eyeliner and their big, billowy, new romantic shirts just so they can ride gigantic new-wave YACHTS straight through your indie-music-addled mother-f***ing BRAIN!!!!!!!!! 


Okay, maybe I'm getting a little carried away here, especially since Duran Duran themselves are now technically an "indie" band (LeBon has even grown the de rigueur beard). I can’t help it though; after listening to their 2011 album, "All You Need Is Now," I'm left with the vivid impression that the original wild boys feel like they've got something major to prove this time around. Not that they don't always try to kick a little musical booty, but with the release of "All You Need Is Now" they seem like a band with a renewed sense of purpose who - dare I say it? - sound HUNGRY. (Get it? Hungry? GET IT?????)

From listening to recent interviews, this newfound focus appears to be the direct result of the band - with the additional guidance of producer and avowed DD fan Mark Ronson - playing to their core songwriting strengths while muting the label-mandated trend-chasing that all but sunk recent efforts like 2007's "Red Carpet Massacre." Ronson's stated intent going into this project was to craft an imaginary follow-up to the album that, for many, remains Duran Duran's commercial and artistic zenith, "Rio." (I think he also went out and beat up RCM co-producer Justin Timberlake for good measure.) 

So the question is, did Ronson succeed in his goal? Well no, not exactly, but you know what? It doesn't even matter because "All You Need Is Now" is an album that sounds less like the imaginary sequel to "Rio" ("Circus Circus"?) and more like a bunch of songs written specifically FOR "Rio" or the debut album. A lot of the musical DNA is the same; you've got beautiful minor-key chord progressions swathed around melancholy melodies. You've got semi-cryptic lyrics from Simon. You've got weird-ass s**t burbling out of Nick's synthesizer. You've got John's bass going BOINK!!! Da-BOINK!!! BOINNNNK!!!!!!!!!! every three seconds like it's threatening to f**k Roger if he gets too close. And baby, this is all good news. Well, maybe not for Roger, but you get the idea.

At least half the songs here call to mind specific tracks from the band's early years: "Girl Panic!" echoes the hedonistic pulse of (naturally) "Girls on Film," right down to the dramatic synthesizer blasts and tribal drum fills; "The Man Who Stole a Leopard" and "Before the Rain" recall the eerie creep of "The Chauffeur"; "Being Followed" and "Blame the Machines" mirror the sci-fi-ish dread of "Planet Earth"; "Runway Runaway" and "Too Bad You're So Beautiful" race along on the same currents as "Rio"; and "Leave a Light on" is the obvious love-child of the one-night-stand in "Save a Prayer."

What saves most of these tunes from being mere knock-offs though, is the sheer kick-assed-ness of the Durans' songwriting chops, which Ronson has shoved squarely to the forefront here. "Being Followed", for example, is quite possibly the coolest song Duran Duran has written in, oh, 5,000 new moons. "Before the Rain" is downright haunting, teeming with sadness, loss and regret (even if I don't know what the frig it's about exactly - death? depression? a long line at the drive-through?). These aren't some wishy-washy watered-down rewrites; these are modern-day counterparts that stand proudly on their own.

Granted, one could argue that "All You Need Is Now" does lack a certain thematic cohesiveness, with the feel of each song vacillating wildly from track to track. Hell, "Other People's Lives," which comes immediately after the dreamily seductive "Man Who Stole a Leopard," (one of the album's highlights) is practically PUNK ROCK, for Christ's sake. (Well, as close as Duran Duran gets to punk rock, that is. We're not talking the Exploited here.) While some may see this as a negative, let me explain why the album's eclecticism works in the band's favor. 

Duran Duran's 1981 debut was bound together by the icy waves of claustrophobic new-wave noir washing over its eight tracks, while "Rio" sustained a quasi-religious exoticism for the duration of the album (translation: it's about chasing hot chicks through the jungle). The new album, on the other hand, is ostensibly about "living in the moment" and coping with the modern world, but actually functions as more of a Duran Duran smorgasbord. The album succeeds because whatever they sacrificed in terms of consistency of mood and color they more than made up for by letting us gorge ourselves on a big, messy sampler platter of their all-time tastiest home-cooked recipes and treats. And there is definitely A LOT to dig into on this album. (“Is anybody HUNGREEEE???”)

Okay, so what's NOT so good here? Hmmmm...well, while there are no outright stinker-oo's on the album, I do have a few minor quibbles. For one, I'm not that crazy about "Safe (in the Heat of the Moment)," which sounds like one of those tunes that Simon and company whip out whenever they're trying to prove they're the world's most awesomest dance band, or something. It features Anna Matronic (of the Scissor Sisters) doing a cute little rap that she intones like the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish singing bass ("What if it were YOU hanging on this wall? What if it were YOU; you wouldn't be laughing at ALLLLLL...") and kind of feels like a late 80's outtake with more cutting edge production. That said, I know there are a lot of fans who enjoy this sort of thing and the song is inoffensive enough. I suppose the next time I'm dropping E at a club in Ibiza at 4 in the morning it'll do just fine. 

"Mediterranea," another track that never quite clicks for me, is the one song on the album which probably hews a little TOO closely to the early Duran Duran formula. For whatever reason, I just can't stop thinking of "Save a Prayer" whenever it comes up in my player. In fact, it vaguely reminds me of one of those production CD's where musicians emulate popular bands just so the owners of Jimmy's All-You-Can-Eat Crab Strip CafĂ© can rip off "Hungry Like the Wolf" without getting their asses sued. "Mediterranera" isn't bad, per se; it just never really "burns the ground" and it's one of the weaker cuts here.

But screw that! Let's not dwell on a few minor missteps when we've got almost an hour's worth of awesomely revitalized Duran Duran music. YEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAA! You can tell the guys put a lot of blood, sweat and runny mascara into this one, and it makes for a seriously rewarding listen that stands up to multiple plays. You seriously got to hand it to them; despite the naysayers and critics calling them empty-headed mannequins and trying to get them to lay down and die for THIRTY YEARS, Duran Duran keep swinging, keep fighting, keep trying to prove their artistic worth and relevance. And I say more power to them. F**k the critics.

Besides, mannequins never really DO die, do they?

*** ½ (three-and-a-half out of five stars)

Notable Tracks: "Being Followed," "Girl Panic!", "The Man Who Stole a Leopard," "Runway Runaway," "Before the Rain."