Duran Duran, Shepherds Bush Empire, London
The Naked and Famous, Digital, Brighton
Duran Duran are ignoring the zeitgeist and have returned to what they've always done best
Sunday 13 March 2011
Now is when something beautiful happens. Any band who achieve a degree of longevity will invariably hit something of a mid-career crisis when the initial burst of ideas that propelled their early years has begun to fade.
At this dread moment, their confidence at an all-time low, they make the fatal error of looking around them in self-doubt, trying to second-guess the zeitgeist. Their next record will, with grim inevitability, be a ghastly attempt to sound contemporary. Typically, this will include (for a pop act) ham-fisted attempts to incorporate dubstep beats or (for a rock act) grinding metallic guitars.
With luck, if the band somehow survive this wobble, they'll come out the other side having learned a lesson. They'll stop bothering to chase the tails of prevailing trends, and remember what they were always good at in the first place.
Whether Duran Duran ever experienced a full-blown mid-career crisis is debatable. Some would smirkingly point at 1995 covers album Thank You (featuring their notorious version of Grandmaster Melle Mel's "White Lines"), although that record does have its defenders. Others would cite 2007's Red Carpet Massacre, which committed the apparent sin of enlisting the help of state-of-the-art producers, but which actually kicked like a mule. In any case, one thing is certain: Duran Duran in 2011 remember what they were always good at.
Thirty years, more or less to the month, since their debut single "Planet Earth", Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor and Taylor are back to launch their 13th studio album All You Need Is Now, a record which, while doubtless informed at some subconscious level by the 21st century, is essentially as Duran Duran as can be. There's always been something inherently flirtatious about the chopped licks of the Duran Duran sound, and it's captured in excelsis on "Girl Panic" (played tonight) and the gloriously titled "The Man Who Stole a Leopard" (unplayed). It's not faultless by any means, and "Mediterranea" has already been christened "Meh-diterranea" by fans, but every gig needs a toilet break.
Simon Le Bon, sickeningly handsome in his Three Musketeers-like goatee, knows all about premature obituaries. Before "Ordinary World", written as a self-aware swansong but actually a surprise hit, he reminisces: "Just when everyone thought we were finished – 1993 – and 18 years later, they can kiss my ..." When the guitar solo comes in, he releases an imaginary dove, like David Brent in the "If You Don't Know Me By Now" video. Like so many things Le Bon does – for example, strapping on an acoustic guitar and eyeing it like it's a strange new science – it's so uncool it comes full circle into coolness.
Cool, of course, was always elusive for Duran, and for a band with a futurist aesthetic who wrote interestingly abstract lyrics (give or take the odd "nuclear war" clunker) and made a stylish sound informed by Chic, Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, unfairly so. It's not often that you can pinpoint the exact moment a band blew any chance of being taken seriously by credibility-obsessed critics, but with Duran it came 52 seconds into the "Rio" video when a giant crab bit Roger Taylor's toe. In a just universe, they should have been neck and elegant neck with Japan. Instead, they were dismissed as a New Romantic Bay City Rollers. Not that anyone belting out that song at Shepherds Bush cares much about that.
It's an album-launcher rather than a crowd-pleaser of a show, from "View to a Kill", prefaced with a slightly fumbled Bond medley from guitarist Dom Brown (a tribute to John Barry), via several new tracks and a handful of oldies to a triumphant "Girls on Film" during which Nick Rhodes takes photos of us (sadly not Polaroids, his erstwhile preferred medium). Inexplicably, they miss a trick by omitting "New Moon on Monday", given that there's a new moon, and it's Monday.
Le Bon isn't the only one looking unfairly fine. When he and John Taylor do the close-up microphone-sharing thing on "Careless Memories", a thousand grown-up women experience some very teenage feelings. When he tweaks the lyrics of fan favourite "Friends of Mine" to run "It's time that you were told/My God, you're looking old", it's in the knowledge that he really doesn't. And it goes without saying that Rhodes is the coolest man on Planet Earth for the 31st consecutive year: half Warhol, half Wizard of Oz.
It's hard, after Flight of the Conchords, to mentally separate the country of New Zealand from a spirit of homely self-deprecation. But The Naked and Famous, an electro-rock quintet from Auckland, exude a very non-Kiwi kind of confidence.
Thom Powers, who has a suave side parting and a touch of the DiCaprios about him, cockily conducts the applause within three songs. Meanwhile, co-front person Alisa Xayalith has the kind of big, American-style FM radio voice you expect to belt out the closing tune of a John Hughes movie.
The BBC's Sound of 2011 nominees are essentially a more pop-friendly LCD Soundsystem, no bad recipe for success. In particular, "All of This", from whose lyrics the band's debut album title Passive Me Aggressive You is taken, resembles a Haribo-high reinvention of LCD's "All My Friends".
Other comparisons include Arcade Fire in "Sprawl II" mode, and the bafflingly overlooked Yes Giantess. On tracks such as the single "Young Blood", the top end twinkles like ice floes, and the bottom end pulsates with a physical force that invites the kind of seismic metaphors that, given recent events in The Naked and Famous's homeland, are best left unused.
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