STEPHEN DUFFY & THE LILAC TIME REVIEWS:
Stephen Duffy: The Ups and Downs (1985)
The Ups and Downs (1985)
Released by Stephen Duffy
Album Score: 11
If you were a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and you were asked the question “Who was the original lead singer of Duran Duran?” and your answer was “Simon Le Bon,” you would have lost a lot of money. The correct answer to that question is “Stephen Duffy” who co-founded the band with John Taylor and Nick Rhodes before quitting in 1979.
Some might wonder how good could an ex member of Duran Duran be, but I've found him to be a remarkable songwriter who eclipses his Duran Duran brethren in several key respects. Not only has he released more albums than they have, but he's a much more consistent songwriter. If I were to take a guess, I would say that Duffy was a bit bitter for having basely missed out on mega-pop-star status, because this album seems to be an attempt for him to achieve that on his own. This is a very Duran-Duran-esque record. But try as he may, the closest thing he ever got to a major hit was “Kiss Me.”
It performed well on the charts in 1985, but today it's probably best known for the Robbie Williams cover version from Rudebox. But if you take a listen to it, you'll quickly discover that it's a perfectly good '80s pop song. The groove is catchy, and the melody is breezy. When I listen to it, I get the immediate urge to get up off my chair and start busting a move. Perhaps it doesn't have much staying power, but my fondness for it tends to increase the more I listen to it. I guess the main reason it wasn't a mega-success was that it didn't have Duran Duran's sexy coolness.
Fortunately, the songs consistently continue to be mightily hooky throughout this album. The bad news is that many of these songs sound like clones of “Kiss Me.” They all keep the same general tempo, the drum machines play the same patterns, and even some of the riffs sound the same. Still, Duffy has such a pleasant, breezy way of presenting these songs that I'm never actually tired of listening to him sing the same thing over and over again. While more diversity would have surely been better, it's not a deal-breaker for me.
One way he might have fixed that problem would have been to spend a little more time in the production department working to improve and bolden his arrangements. There was a little bit of that going on with the catchy flute riff in “But is it Art?” and the lavish string section in the closing song, “The World at Large.” But as a whole, most of these songs seem awfully bare. Especially compared to the jangly albums he would eventually cut with The Lilac Time.
Other than “Kiss Me,” the album's other main attempt at a hit single was “Icing on the Cake,” which has one of the album's smoothest production values. The reason it wasn't a big hit probably had to do with marketing and the fact that it doesn't strike me as immediately catchy. It's the sort of song that I listen to and love, but it never completely sinks in.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment I had with The Ups and Downs was the ballads. While they continue to be well-written and unflinchingly likable, they don't really catch fire. While it's difficult to argue against a song with such a solid hook as “Wednesday Jones,” the song would have completely flourished if it were allowed to go anywhere beyond a simple piano ballad. I mean, A+-level flourish. These ballads are too lethargic for their own good.
I've read a pretty negative comment about this album written on Duffy's MySpace page, so Duffy himself evidently doesn't think much of this. I would only agree with that sentiment if we're clear that I'm only comparing it to his later albums. This album sands up pretty well on its own two feet, so don't hesitate buying it if you've become enamored with his Lilac Time albums like I have. Even though this is electro-pop, the breezy and likable songwriting is unmistakably his style.
Read the track reviews:
Because We Love You (1986)
Released by Stephen Duffy
Album Score: 11
Stephen Duffy was still probing for hits, but he seemed more interested in expanding the somewhat plain sound of his debut. In particular, he added Vegas-inspired horns, elaborate string sections, and a gospel choir. Of course these were all wonderful ideas; coupled with Duffy's already well-established songwriting strength, these embellishments can only increase the level of satisfaction and excitement one gets from his pop music.
And what else should I say? This is a satisfying '80s pop album! It tanked commercially, but I'm assuming that was just because of poor marketing. Based on the actual music there is no compelling reason that this album couldn't have at least been a minor hit.
There are no less than four dance-pop songs that you should make a point of hearing if you're into that sort of thing. My favorite of them is “We'll Never Argue.” Not only does it have that smooth, Duran-Duran-esque disco bass, but its melody is awesomely catchy. Particularly the gospel-singer-backed chorus that just *takes off*. “Something Special” is a bit slower, but it's equally as catchy and instantly likable. You will also notice that Duffy found someone who knows how to play quick, dazzling, and jazzy saxophone solos (reminiscent of the saxophone on the Saturday Night Live theme song, for example), and it resurfaces in this album on a number of occasions.
“A Lot of Ink” is another catchy tune with Duran Duran inspired bass rhythms and a lovely thing to dance to. However, my one complaint about it is that it seems to run out of steam after three minutes. So, while it's a good song, perhaps it needed a little bit of extra juice. “I Love You” is more of a Madonna-inspired bit of electro-pop, which starts out a bit cluttered, but once that drum machine and fake-horn riff comes in, it turns out to be another appealingly danceable piece. (And, you know, fake horns aren't always a bad thing. Not all fake-horn riffs sound like “Sussudio,” you know.)
There is certainly an increase in the number of ballads on here compared to the previous album, which is great, but they all seem to have some difficulty getting off the ground. “Julie Christie” is probably the best of them, a beautifully orchestrated piece with its sweeping strings and woodwinds. However, I don't find myself in a position of being completely swept along with it as it seems like I should have. I could say the exact same things about “Sunday Supplement” and “When You Go to Bed.” ...As a matter of fact, it's rather difficult telling these three songs apart from each other unless you're closely studying them.
That brings me to my final complaint about this album. Too many of these songs sound like they were cut from the same cloth. All the dance songs reliably have a disco synth-bass rhythm, Vegas horns, and a gospel choir, and all the ballads have a sweeping string section. There might have been a few interesting instrumental touches here and there, such as a xylophone on “A Lot of Ink” and tubular bells in “We'll Never Argue,” but they never have much air-time. And, frankly, sometimes they come off as a bit awkward.
I could have gone for a 12 on this one, but that was what prevented me from raising it. It also would have helped if there were a truly *definitive* hit single on here that makes me want to keep coming back to the album. “Something Special” and “We'll Never Argue” comes very close, and I wouldn't hesitate putting them on an '80s dance party mix, but they don't quite give me the itch.
Nonetheless, this is still better than most albums that were big at the time. Phil Collins. George Michael. Madonna. It must have been some sort of cruel trick that this perfectly good '80s pop album for the teens didn't even chart at all. (His previous album at least made it to #35, which was still far less than it deserved.) On the other hand, perhaps it's a good thing that the wretched masses didn't take to Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy. If they did, then he might not have been inspired to start that excellent jangle-pop band The Lilac Time shortly after the release of this album. That band, after all, was the whole reason I was inspired to review this man's work to begin with. So I guess fate wins every time.
Read the track reviews:
Designer Beatnik (1986)
Released by Dr. Calculus
Album Score: 9
One reason that I'm upset that Stephen Duffy isn't a more highly revered figure in pop culture is because I've only been able to find scant information about this unusual album that he recorded in 1986 with Roger Freeman, a former member of the post-punk band Pigbag. It sounds very much like Art of Noise; it's heavy on the drum machine sound, does a lot of sampling, and it's artsy-fartsy as hell. The main difference is that it's a tad more mainstream-oriented.
The band name, Dr. Calculus, is borrowed from a character in The Adventures of Tintin, the cartoon series by Herge. I have to assume Duffy was using this name tauntingly since Herge's estate had previously threatened to sue Duffy for using the name Tintin. Again, I wish the Mother Internet hadn't failed me on this one, because I haven't been able to find any information about that.
I know nothing about Roger Freeman and Pigbag, so I went to the trusty old YouTube and listened to a song of theirs called “Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag.” It's very much reminiscent of this album, except there's no sampling. Their electronic bass-synthesizers are heavy, the riffs are played by a swinging horn section, the drum machines are loud, and there are a lot of puttery and out-of-tune horn noodles. When I first gave this album a whirl, I couldn't believe that Duffy could possibly be associated with it; it sounds nothing like his vying-for-the-Duran-Duran-sound of his previous two albums and even less like the pretty folk-pop albums he would later create with The Lilac Time.
So I'm guessing it was Roger Freeman who really ran the show, and Duffy was the supporting character providing all the samples. Why do I assume that Duffy provided the samples? Because the vast majority of the spoken dialogue sounds like it's from young women. Some of the dialog is even in French. If you've seen Duffy's music videos, then you've seen a lot of young women with a '60s French fashion sense.
But enough of that. Let's talk about this bloody music. If you like Art of Noise, then you might want to check this album out. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother with it. I know I said earlier that Designer Beatnik is a little more mainstream oriented, but it's still way too weird for people with strictly mainstream tastes. And people who love Art of Noise (which I don't particularly) will most likely find this to be a pale imitation. Take “Man” for instance. There are a plethora of overdubbed, pittery horn solos, random piano notes, and sound effects, and it's all based on a scaling and not-catchy synth-bass line. It's art music at its core, but what on earth is it trying to show me? From beginning to end, the only imagery I get out of it is that of dozens of people lying down on the street, all simultaneously having epileptic seizures. It's just utter craziness.
The coolest song of the lot is undoubtedly the closer, “Perfume From Spain,” which has the distinction of being the only piece here with lead vocals. It's a very mid-'80s sounding rap and it's stylin'. (Whatever happened to rap? It's lost that '80s style!) It has a sung chorus, which is haunting and memorable. That's a pretty good song and potentially worth a listen from you. I also enjoy the opening number, “Blasted with Ecstasy,” and that is completely because of those irrepressibly fun horn grooves.
So the first song and last song are good; it's the middle of the album that causes the problems. They write a whole lot more of these heavy-drum-machine art songs, but they start to get tiring after awhile. They also throw in a handful of ambient tracks, but as I mentioned about “Man,” the imagery is never that strong and so I don't think there's much of a point in listening to them.
...As a whole, this is an interesting album and quite an odd-duck-entry into Stephen Duffy's discography, but I don't think I'll ever care to listen to it again. The exception to that could be “Perfume From Spain.” The ambitiousness of this album had the potential of warranting a 10-rating, but I find that I only care enough about it to award it the 9. Now, on with The Lilac Time!!!
Read the track reviews:
The Lilac Time (1987)
Released by The Lilac Time
Album Score: 13
The first notes of this album ought to make anyone scratch their heads in retrospect. Previously to Lilac Time, frontman Stephen Duffy was making pop albums in a similar vein of Duran Duran, but it's as clear as a clear blue sky that the Lilac Time's folk-pop was tailor-made for his distinctly soft and friendly vocals. The drum machine and synthesizer music, while nice, never really seemed to suit him.
In particular, I adore listening to him in the ethereal album opener, “Black Velvet,” where his vocals blend in seamlessly with the song's foggy atmosphere. That's also a distinctly British song with a beautiful ye olde Medieval chord progression. Its orchestration is taken on by the expected array of texturally rich acoustic guitars, but it's also given some character with the addition of harmoniums and violins. The song is a spiritual descendant of Wings' “Mull of Kintyre,” except it comes off as more mystical. Could it even be better? It's close, and I won't call it.
After the final notes of “Black Velvet” fade out, you might expect every song to be slow and atmospheric like that. After all, I've listened to and been subsequently bored with plenty of albums that have nothing but slow, atmospheric folk songs on them. However, this is quite a diverse album. The second song is a danceable number with a melody strong enough to get stuck in my head. It's just as danceable as one of his Tintin songs, but those pickin' guitars give it a joyous, hoedown quality. “Together” is a keyboard-ridden song with another rhythm you can dance to and a melody that's nothing if it's not likable. Where could that ever go wrong?
I also like his attempt at an art-rock style song, “Rockland,” which uses a light drum machine groove and an array of whooshy and jangly sound-effects. Its atmosphere starts out rather sparse, but it seems to get darker and more tense as it moves along. The melody isn't terribly complicated, but it nonetheless holds my interest. Probably the weakest song of the lot is “Love Becomes a Savage,” which is slowly paced and contains a rather boring riff. Making it even less compelling is that its atmosphere is sparse and doesn't really do anything for me. (As much as I like acoustic guitar strumming, I wouldn't mind some substantial input from other instruments! How about a little build-up? Eh?) However, its chord progression is interesting, and Duffy's lead vocals are—as always—so pleasant and sweet that I can't help but love it. In other words, I love the worst song on this album.
The album hits one of its ultimate highs with “The Road to Happiness.” Whenever that low-key folk song pops up, I find myself sinking into it like being outside in springtime and slowly coming to realize that it's a beautiful day outside. (That was corny imagery... but I don't feel bad about feeling corny with folk-pop music.) That song pretty much nails everything: the descending chord progression, the melody, the delicately woven instrumentation... But more than anything, really, it's the harmonium playing melancholic chords in the background that gets to me.
Another highlight is “And the Ship Sails On” with a clumpy rhythm and a pulsating synth-string groove. The melody is so strong that I'll probably start singing along with it after about five more listens. The album closer is an instrumental, “Trumpets from Montparsse.” The instrumentation isn't terribly complicated, but the chord progression is interesting. Its melodic theme is taken on by an acoustic guitar, which is joined by a fiddle midway through. Also midway through, we start hearing some cheery “la-la-lahs,” which gives me the impression we've been listening to a bunch of gnomes in the woodlands all this time.
Unfortunately, I don't have the version of this album with the bonus tracks, but I did manage to listen to three of them. And they're all great! They certainly make it worth it to hold out for a version of this album with bonus tracks! In particular, I like “Gone For a Burton,” which is a melancholic ballad that has one of the most beautiful uses of a harmonica that I can ever remember hearing.
In short, if you like wholesome, acoustic folk music with good melodies and beautiful lead singing, then don't let another day go to waste. Perhaps these songs aren't immediately infectious like a Duran Duran album, but after only a few listens, I was hooked on it. And the experience only got better the more I listened to it.
Read the track reviews:
Paradise Circus (1989)
Released by The Lilac Time
Album Score: 14
Oh man. I can't believe what I'm hearing. How is it possible for a breezy jingle-jangle pop album be so ...perfect? That's right, ladies and gentlemen: This is going to be one of the gushier reviews I've ever written. I listened to this album at least a dozen times over the last two months, and I've come to the conclusion that there isn't a single song here that I don't love to pieces. Do you know how rare that is? In fact, there is only one song that I even get mildly bored with, and that's the six-and-a-half-minute “Father Mother Wife and Child.” The only reason I single that one out is because it's a bit … er … long. (Hilariously, if you listen closely at the end of it, you can hear Stephen Duffy saying “Too long?” as the song cuts out!) However, when I play closer attention to the song, I come to realize that even that is brilliant. Let me try to show you how.
Hear that beautiful forlorn melody and how Stephen Duffy sings it in such a heartbreaking way. The instrumentation at first is quite simple, with basically a strummed guitar keeping a texture, but as it progresses, they layer on more and more sounds into the mix... Whenever the chorus pops around, it can be positively uplifting with some crunchy strings and atmospheric keyboards. By the end of the song, I can even hear a timpani start to get in on the action although you've got to listen closely for it! For sure, if Paul Simon came up with the exact same song in the '70s, it would've been one of the most critically acclaimed songs of his career.
That song also happens to be evidence that The Lilac Time had changed their sound slightly since the debut—they had expanded their sound to incorporate a wider array of instruments. Furthermore, some of these songs are so upbeat, highly polished, and catchy that I have a hard time believing they weren't big hits on the college-radio circuit. A song like “If the Stars Shine Tonight” just begs to be listened to while I'm in my car driving to work. Really, that's a perfect pop song. The catchy accordion line that opens it immediately draws me into it, and then of course Duffy comes in with another solid and breezily delivered vocal melody. They even bring in a beautiful slide guitar to play some fireworks in the background. It's all just lovely. ...There are so many near-perfect pop songs on this album that I couldn't possibly describe them all for you in the main body of this review. So, I'll have to let simply naming them suffice: “American Eyes,” “The Days of the Week,” “The Girl Who Waves at Trains,” “The Last to Know,” and “The Rollercoaster Song.”
However, my favorite song of the album is “The Lost Girl in the Midnight Sun,” which is one of the songs that made me want to review The Lilac Time in the first place. It's one of the most mystically alluring songs I've ever heard; it starts with a mesmerizing but simple acoustic guitar texture before very gradually adding layers upon layers of sound until it becomes infectiously toe-tapping. ...I've been talking a lot about melodies and instrumentation in this album, but I haven't yet mentioned that the lyrics are similarly beautiful. (“Spanish is the loving tongue / The lost girl in the midnight sun / Is lost and young / She comes as if from a dream / And asks me what does living mean / I'm lost? I'm lost”) All these songs have lyrics like that.
Oh and the quieter ballads are brilliant as well. “The Beauty in Your Body” starts out bare and thoughtful, and once again it gradually gets lusher as it goes along. By the end I hear a banjo, a few pretty electric organs, a small choir in the background, and even a tubular bell letting out a few gongs. “Work For the Weekend” is surely one of the highlights of this album of highlights; it's another finely textured song with an uplifting chorus and a melody that's very easy for me to take to heart.
Sometimes when I give out a score as high as a 14 to an album that isn't already widely acclaimed, a little chatterbox in my head starts going off making me question whether or not I'm overrating it. ...However, listening to this particular album for the better part of two months, I don't possibly see how I could be. These songs are all brilliant. Every last one of them. Not only are the melodies beautiful and sweetly sung, but the instrumentation is constantly evolving and the lyrics consistently intrigue me. This album also seems to reward repeat listens, since I was able to get more into it the more I listened to it. Put this on your list of 1001 albums that you should hear sometime.
Read the track reviews:
& Love For All (1990)
Released by The Lilac Time
Album Score: 13
I'm supposing these guys were dismayed over their lack of success, so they decided to up the ante by enticing a couple of world-class producers to take on the helm of intermittent tracks for their 1990 release, & Love For All. The producers, if you would like to know their names, are... *drum roll*.... Andy Partridge, a member of the amazing pop acts XTC and Dukes of the Stratosphear, and John Leckie, who is probably most acclaimed for producing the Stones Roses debut. Both of their influences certainly shows in this release; this pop album is lush as hell!
As we all know from my previous Lilac Time reviews, which I'm sure you have all memorized by now, Stephen Duffy's vocals have a light, friendly and airy quality to them. I like hearing him sing no matter what he's doing—even if his vocals occasionally came off as a bit weak in the mix. In this album, however, his vocals are exceptionally solid thanks to a reverb effect and a full choir's worth of overdubs, which you'll hear throughout most of these songs. Moreover, the instrumentation and mixing this album is pretty much perfect. (Maybe a few cases, it's a bit much, but those are just nitpicky quibbles.)
Take, for instance, “All for Love and Love for All,” which would have been a massive hit on the radio if this were a decent world. You'll hear appropriately bright and sunny jangly guitars, which matches Duffy's warm melody and optimistic lyrics... But if you listen more in the background, you'll hear percussion rhythms that evolve, a gruffy guitar, a high-pitched piano playing somewhat off-kilter notes in the background, and a very unusual rumbly synthesizer. It's a very solid and snappy pop song, but these subtle instrumental touches that I don't really notice until I listen to it very closely puts it over the edge for me.
My favorite song of the record is a mid-tempo number called “The Laundry” mostly because it's the musical equivalent of going back in time and snuggling in your childhood bed. The melody is beautiful, and the atmosphere is something I like to bask myself in. What just missed out as my favorite song of the album, by a hair, is the forlorn, five-minute ballad “And On We Go.” It gives me a lump in my throat at the same time that it gives me the impression that there's hope coming around the corner. I'm not too sure how many other songs out there are quite like that. Not many! “Let Our Land Be the One” is another beautiful song and another one of my all time favorites, which consists of Duffy singing simply amongst a few thoughtful acoustic guitars. “Paper Boat” is a similar sounding song with another brilliant melody except there's a piano. All these exceptionally strong melodies makes me think Stephen Duffy had hook-writing superpowers or something...
So far, I gushed over five songs on this album, and the gushing would only continue if I allowed myself infinite space for these reviews. That would be easy for me to do since there is not one bad or mediocre song on this album. Perhaps there are some that I'm not extremely enthusiastic about. “Fields,” for instance, starts off somewhat clunky... but of course the catchy melody, sunny chorus, and some of those subtle instrumental touches end up winning me over completely. “I Went to the Dance” might be the most interestingly produced album; it starts out with some deeply pulsating bass guitars and very gradually other instrumentals are added onto it as it reaches its conclusion.
With all that said, I don't quite like this as much as their previous album, Paradise Circus. That's principally because there isn't a song in this album that I've been able to take to heart quite as much as “Lost Girl in the Midnight Sun,” which let's face it, is one of my favorite songs of all time. I also think I generally prefer that album's more folk oriented instrumentation style as opposed to this album's lusher, pop feeling. Nevertheless, as I've said extensively throughout this review, the pop production is some of the best I've ever heard in the world. The producers took The Lilac Time's already established style and tweaked it a bit to fit with their image. It's fantastic through and through.
Without question, if you've never listened or even heard of these guys and you like lush, jangly pop music with excellent melodies, then get yourself on the next train (or whatever your preferred mode of transportation, mine of which is a flying carpet) and go to the nearest record store. ...And when you discover, to your dismay, that the nearest record store doesn't have any Lilac Time albums, get yourself back on train (or flying carpet, etc.) and go back home so that you can order it on Amazon.com. And you won't be sorry you've ordered it. That's the Don Ignacio guarantee.
Read the track reviews:
Released by The Lilac Time
Album Score: 13
It should be no secret by now that I am, probably, the world's biggest fan of The Lilac Time. Considering how woefully unknown these guys are, that might not be such an exaggeration. (Why, oh why, haven't the gods of the Internet granted me the ability to generate the same sort of influence as other great bloggers, such as Perez Hilton?) Anyway, if this is another Lilac Time album, then it must be another fantastic one, which you've already been able to gather, probably, from yet another unabashed 13 that I've laden on them. I'll ask you: Will this high-album-score madness ever end? ...Well, The Lilac Time would surely end after this. Duffy would re-embark on a solo career after the release of this album. That is, until they would reunite in 1999.
So anyway, this album might not have the big-name producers that they had in & Love For All, but they certainly continued in that vein: These songs are poppy and they sparkle. As always, Stephen Duffy's songwriting talents continue to be sky-high; there's not one uninteresting melody of the bunch.
The album starts off with “In Iverna Gardens,” a beautifully written song with production so rich and imaginative that it transports me to... well... an exotic garden. (I don't know where Iverna is, but considering the astronaut sound effects I hear in the background at the beginning of it, I think it's gotta be on some distant planet.) The mix between the watery guitar, the earthly piano, and the atmospheric synthesizers makes this one of the more immersible songs I've ever heard. Duffy's vocals, as they had been for the last few albums are so, are softer and fluffier than cotton. The verses are beautiful, and the chorus is so catchy that I want to sing along with it. Is it a perfect song? I'd be tempted to call it that if only this album didn't also have “Finistere” on it. It starts out pretty captivating with some tight acoustic guitar textures, but the longer that song seems to go on, the more I get into it. ...There's no scientific explanation to how that song gets more captivating the more it goes on, because it seems to mostly repeat the same old thing over and over. Maybe it's some sort of voodoo.
“The Whisper of Your Mind” is a good one for those who like more or less straightforward pop music. Its production is fairly simple with ordinarily strumming acoustic guitars, but once again, its verses section is just as catchy as its chorus. Great verses and great choruses all at once is something that I don't hear that often, and it's amazing that Duffy is able to pull that off so consistently. “Hats Off, Here Comes the Girl” sounds like it should have played on the radio considering how much its production sparkles—particularly with that bendy, exotic synthesizer I hear wobbling off in the background—and a melody that's instantly memorable. “A Taste of Honey” is a shuffly sort of song that's so warm and endearing that it makes me think it's summertime outside—even though it happens to be SNOWING right now and I'm sick of winter.
...So there you go. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I like ALL these songs. But just to prove that I don't work for Stephen Duffy's PR department, there's a song called “Fortunes” that I like the least. It's very heavy on the atmosphere, but unfortunately it never completely becomes airborne. But you know what? Even that melody continues to be good... If anything, that shows these guys were incapable of coming out with an uninteresting song.
That's even true for the bonus tracks, most of which consists of demos. ...I mean, it's rare enough for an album to be chock-filled with excellent songs, but is almost unheard of for previously unpublished demos to nearly match that exceptional quality. In fact, I can't even think of anyone right now who'd managed to do that. Most of them even seem just about perfect in their demo form. “Ghetto Child” still comes off as entrancing as Duffy sings a memorable melody in a remarkably heartfelt manner. “An Ear For Silent Voices” is a great pick for people who love low-key folk music. “Galaxy” has a great melody, but in that instance, I think that one would have benefited greatly with some sparkly instrumentation!
It's got to be one of the biggest shames in the history of music that Stephen Duffy and The Lilac Time never gained much popularity. If they had, then they probably would have been given a bigger budget to make already-excellent albums even better. I've read that they had even been wanting to make double albums, but their producers would never allow them to. However, when it's all said and done, I suppose we can't spend too much of our time dwelling on these hypothetical situations. Let's just be glad that these things are still available for purchase.
Read the track reviews:
Music in Colors (1993)
Released by Stephen Duffy
Album Score: 12
Here, Stephen Duffy enters the third phase of his illustrious career in which he ditched The Lilac Time and tried, once again, to find solo career success. (Or did The Lilac Time ditch Stephen Duffy? Again, if these guys were more famous, the story much have made it onto VH1's Behind the Music, and I wouldn't have to make up stuff for these reviews.) Well, this is another solid album with plenty of songs on it that seem like they ought to have fared rather well on the radio. But perhaps because Duffy did something wrong in a previous life, none of these songs ever found much commercial success.
If you take a listen to “Natalie,” though, you might wonder how that thing can't be well-known. Not only is the melody breezy and instantly catchy, but the summery instrumentation sounds both modern (to 1993) and timeless (to 2011). I mean, it's not like Duffy was making things difficult for listeners. If you're looking for a song to bob your head pleasantly to, then there's your ticket. Perhaps even more memorable is the watery and gorgeous violin that does acrobatics throughout it, and plays a few excellent riffs here and there. The violinist is Nigel Kennedy, who is best known for his classical performances, is heard throughout all these tracks. In fact, I might accuse him of trying to steal the spotlight too much because his sounds get a bit saturated by the end of the album, but there are some pretty amazing things he does even then. Perhaps most notably, he plays a very awesome Middle-Eastern-inspired riff in “Hotie End Hotel” that takes the cake from between my ears. (There's an old expression I just modified. Feel free to try it on your friends.) But of course, even as awesome as the violin sounds there, it is little more than just the icing on the cake (between my ears) since the song is mainly propelled forward by Duffy's always dependable breezy hooks and pretty vocal performances.
I do have a pretty big complaint about Nigel Kennedy, however. He composes seven segue pieces, each named “Transitionoire,” that show up in between tracks. At first, they're kind of cool. They tend to have a thick compelling atmosphere and some even have a strong Middle Eastern flavor to it. They also seemed to flow in well with the song that came before it as well as the one that came after. ...However, by the end of the album, his atmospheres have been reduced to merely barrels of avant garde noise that seem like they tossed in there just for the purpose of filling up space. I have nothing against avant garde music, but they don't always work when they're sandwiched between summery Stephen Duffy songs.
It's nice to hear “Galaxy” here, which was a leftover from the fourth Lilac Time album (I reviewed an early incarnation of it in those bonus tracks). I did mention there that it would have been nice to hear him fully flesh it out with production! But alas, he performs it pretty much exactly the same way as he did in the demo. It's still a laid back folk song. The only difference is there's just a bit of bongo percussion and some crunchy violin there, which keeps things—I suppose—fresh. “It Sparkles!” is a bright and exciting album opener, which you might have gathered from its punctuated song title. It starts with a bit of a violin build-up before launching itself into a mid-tempo adult-contemporary song with watery guitar, mechanical bass, and a chorus that completely POPS.
On the downside, I don't care much for the title track, which goes on for more than seven minutes and it just seems to meander without doing anything interesting enough to have warranted it such a length. “Totem” is better, but it also has a hard time making a name for itself among this sea of better pop songs. Hey, Duffy's an excellent pop songwriter, but he ain't perfect.
People who know and love Lilac Time albums (all six of you) might wonder what this album has in terms of forlorn ballads, which is one of Duffy's specialties. There are two gems in here for you! “She Wants to Share Her Magic” develops quite a cloudy atmosphere with some thick string arrangements before letting itself get more toe-tapping by the end. But even better is “Charlotte's Conversation” with a melody that's so melancholic and sweet that it's almost impossible not to take it to heart. ...And it also builds itself up into a genuinely exciting jamming session that involves two guitars and that acrobatic violin.
I did end up giving this album a mere 12, which is lower than any of the four classic The Lilac Time albums that I reviewed. I think it must have been the segue sections and the ungodly length of the title track that sort of spoiled this one for me. ...However, this is nonetheless a very solid 12 anyway thanks to the multitude of excellent songs it has.
Read the track reviews:
Released by Duffy
Album Score: 13
Stephen Duffy had briefly re-christened himself as Duffy in the mid-to-late-'90s, and that's not to be confused with the Welsh singer-songwriter who popped up in the late '00s. However—rest assured—this album is from that same, friendly old bloke who has that uncanny ability to write some of the most pleasant pop tunes ever known to mankind and yet never gaining very much of a wide following. It begs the question: How can one man pen so many excellent tunes without making hardly a dent in the public psyche? It goes to show you, kids, if your songwriting skills are genuinely inspired and you put a lot of effort in your work, the person on the street would still rather listen to Mariah Carey. (Not that Carey doesn't give it a lot of effort...)
I've been heaping lots of words of praise onto Stephen Duffy over these months I've been reviewing his albums, and after listening to Duffy, I can do nothing else but do it again: He is by far one of the most consistently good songwriters on the planet. I almost wish there would be one or two songs of the lot I didn't love so that I might say something differently, but alas: Every song here is a winner. I mean, I play all 17 of these tracks, and I'll be a snaggle-toothed octopus if one of them wasn't completely enjoyable. All of them are delivered with Duffy's soothing, soft and high-pitched vocals, which is intermixed quite brilliantly with upbeat jangle-pop instrumentation. For good measure, Duffy even throws in a few ethereal melancholic ballads, but they're seemingly not as numerous as I remember them being in any Lilac Time album.
Without a second thought of the matter, if you liked Duffy's style with The Lilac Time, you're going to love this album, because they're not a whole lot different! However, I do notice a bit more gruffy guitar thrown in the mix than I'm used to hearing, which lends a few numbers a distinctly power-pop flavor and others sound like they're right out of Rubber Soul era Beatles. (Duffy even throws in a few brief-sloppy-tuneful electric guitar solos in the mix that have George Harrison's signature strewn all over it.) Given The Beatles connection, if there's a chance at all for you to fall in love with a Stephen Duffy album at all, this has to be one of your better bets. (Critics also have been known to compare this to Oasis... But a Beatles comparison is far more appropriate, don't you think?)
“London Girls” is the toe-tapping album opener, and it's positively explosive. Its pounding riff is reminiscent of David Bowie's “Jean Genie,” but the light and whispy melody is purely Duffy. That song is followed up by the sweet, jangly Brit-pop tune appropriately called “Sugar High,” which is like eating a light desert with whipped cream on it from beginning to end. That song even has a middle-eight section, and in the world of pop songwriting, that is total class, my friends. “She Freak” has some country-rock flavor that wouldn't at all be out of place on a Lilac Time record, except he peppers it up with a bit of a droning guitar sound that's thrust deeply in the background, which sounds lifted from Velvet Underground's “Venus in Furs.”
You might recognize “Ghetto Child” from the bonus tracks of Astronauts. If Duffy really had to limit the amount of ballads in this album, he sure picked the right one from his back-log of songs! That's a beautiful piece with a melody so haunting that it hits me squarely in the chest. It's just an exquisitely beautiful and morose piece. However, right after that song, he follows it up with what's perhaps the most bubbly song of the album, “Starfit.” Let's just say that if you can't enjoy a hearty bit of power-pop like that, then please give me your home address, because I'm going to confiscate your stereo.
There are so many excellent songs in this album that there's no way I can talk about them all here. Indeed, this is one of those albums in which every song seems like a highlight. However, to further prove how much of a rock star Stephen Duffy is (not literally, but figuratively) the 2005 reissue of this album is laden with six bonus tracks that are equally as enjoyable as anything in the album itself. “You, Me & God” is arguably the best of them—it's another wholesome bit of acoustic-guitar-led pop song with a remarkably pretty melody. There's also a different version of “Sugar High” in those bonus tracks... Usually when there's repeat songs in an album, I'll skip it. However, in this case, I don't! That song is so excellent that I wager I could listen to it on repeat for an entire day.
Duffy always comes across as modest in his songs, which might explain why some people don't go for him. I guess people in general only go for musicians who go over-the-top in one way or another. Well, as you might know already, I like flamboyant rock 'n' roll music and wild personalities as much as the next person. But every once in awhile, why not sit back and listen to something tuneful and sweet?
Read the track reviews:
I Love My Friends (1998)
Released by Duffy
Album Score: 14
This is Stephen Duffy's second and final release as the artist known simply as “Duffy,” and he would soon end up reforming The Lilac Time. But Lilac Time or no Lilac Time, Duffy once again completely nails it; all of these songs are wonderfully written, and I would have to struggle to find a flaw with anything here. Not that I would want to.
I watch cooking shows sometimes, and every professional chefs says the same thing: Use simple ingredients and to let them shine individually. You can use that to sum up Duffy's songwriting principles... He never lets his songs get complicated and most of them are orchestrated quite subtly and beautifully with simple folksy guitars and drums. Most importantly, he never, ever forgets the most essential ingredient: A wholesome melody. Most of these songs have some sort of added instrument, such as a string section or an electric organ, but their contributions are always kept well in the background providing the scenery and never once do they threaten to overshadow the guitars and drums. Maybe that's why Duffy never gained the international following he deserved? He never really had any gimmicks. I mean, would The Beatles have gained traction without their mop-tops?
Keeping the trend from his previous album, 1995's Duffy, he lends some of these songs a heavy guitar flavor, so you could probably get away with calling this a power-pop album if you wanted to. But of course he doesn't let that guitar sound dominate the album, as you'll also hear quite a few folky songs as well as a few other trinkets to keep the experience interesting. But of course, this continues to sound basically like his Lilac Time records.
The lyrics offer a bit of a departure from Duffy's previous releases, though. These are very autobiographical, and he sings them intermittently with cheerful nostalgia or some with a bit of forlorn regret. The very beginning of this album features some snippets of songs all throughout his career. I haven't followed his career as it was progressing, of course, but they did give me fond memories of reviewing them! After that, we get “Eucharist,” which features those heavy power-pop guitars I was talking about. But they're bouncy and rhythmic, and they hardly get in the way of Duffy's hugely wonderful pop-melody.
But “17” is even better. It's basically the same thing except the melody POPS out at me more. The lyrics in that song pertain to Duffy's early career when he used to hang out with a girl, and he must've had some regrets about how that relationship ended. This album is filled with autobiographical information such as that, which is something I've never heard him do before. The song “Twenty Three,” as you might have surmised, is from a later stage in his life. That is also a very beautiful though heart-wrenching folk ballad. As I've said before, upbeat songs are always the lifeblood of a great pop album, but I think it's these sorts of ballads that set the great pop songwriters apart from the mediocre ones.
“You Are” starts off with a simple guitar groove and not anything particularly special, but it kind of amazes me—by the end—hearing how that song builds up and eventually turns into something very special. “The Deal” is a shuffley folk song with beautiful acoustic guitar and his soft vocals in top form. “She Belongs To All” is probably the most unusual song of the bunch, a '60s pop song with a mild jazz flavor. If Shirley Bassey sang it and the folk guitars were taken away, it would've made a great James Bond tune from the Sean Connery era. But of course most of this stuff people call Brit-pop. “Something Good” has a nice, Beatles-esque flavor to it, and I expect I like it about as much as a top Beatles tune. Duffy brings the album to a sweeping conclusion with “One Day One of These F*cks Will Change Your Life,” which is really a stunningly beautiful song.
Up until now, I was pretty sure the only 14 I'd be awarding any of Stephen Duffy's projects would have been Paradise Circus. But no! Here's another one! How does he do it? When I went to write the track reviews, I couldn't even bear to give a single one of these songs an A-, which is a feat that's only shared with Paradise Circus in his discography. Plus, there are more than just a handful of special moments that are going to linger on in my mind for years to come. Man! I know I say this in nearly every single Duffy-related review I write, but it amazes me more and more as I keep on hearing these endless strings of flawless songs: Why isn't he more highly celebrated? He should be on the level with Paul McCartney.
Read the track reviews:
Looking For a Day in the Night (1999)
Released by The Lilac Time
Album Score: 12
What happened to the fast songs? I know it's completely unlike me to start a Stephen-Duffy-related review with a complaint, but it isn't until now that I've finally found something to complain about. There are 18 songs on this album, and every single one of them is slow and acoustic. Of course, this being Stephen-Duffy-related, they're all very pleasurable, and a few songs on here are positively brilliant. Nevertheless, this album is full of slow, mellow songs that all kind of sound alike. I'll be honest: I have trouble sitting through it all at once.
However, I'm not going to spend this review talking about the negatives, since I'm still quite fond of this album. Perhaps most importantly, it happens to contain the very first Stephen Duffy song that I've ever fallen in love with: “Dream That We All Share.” I discovered it while poking around an online streaming site in late August 2009 when I just started my third semester at Washington State University. I quickly bought the mp3, put it on my iPod, and listened to it quite a bit as I walked around campus! When I listen to it these days, I can strongly sense what it was like walking around outdoors around that time—with the heat radiating up from the pavement—and seeing those rolling hills of golden wheat fields that surrounds that university. (Isn't it amazing how music can do that?) But anyway, that song is so evocative that I'm sure it'll make a lasting impression on everyone on their own unique ways.
By far the best thing about Stephen Duffy reforming The Lilac Time after nearly a decade of trying—and unfortunately failing—to strike it big as a solo act was that he got his BAND back. (It wasn't the *same* band, mind you, but a band all the same.) Most notably he regained the services of his brother Nick who was almost certainly the main driving force behind this album's ethereal, country-ish flavor. Thus, when Duffy writes a great song like “Dream That We All Share,” it was made even greater by the band who gave it a wonderful atmosphere from a gentle flurry of arpeggiating acoustic guitars as well as one of the dreamiest slide guitars I've ever heard welling around in the background. A new addition to the band was a female singer and multi-instrumentalist by the name of Clair Worrall who sings lovely harmonies in that song and others. Worrall and Duffy sound so nice together that perhaps it's not too surprising that they would later tie the knot...
But as I said earlier, the main problem with this album is that sound almost NEVER changes. In The Lilac Time's original incarnation, their albums from 1987-1991 had plenty of inner-diversity that kept things exciting and juicy. That diversity was a major reason why those were such great albums. ...But after awhile, the saminess of the songs in this lengthy album starts to wear thin on me. The most diverse song on this album is the title track, which has a vaguely Indian flavor to it... However, even that song is mainly orchestrated with gently arpeggiating acoustic guitars and Duffy's soft singing voice. I've tried listening to this album in my car a few times, and midway through I just want to switch it off. I would have suspected that Duffy would have stopped trying to write pop songs after years of never getting a major hit, but I wouldn't have expected him to stop trying altogether! As the first ever Stephen Duffy album without pop songs on it, the void hits me square-center in my chest.
With that said, some of these folk/country songs would sound great in a mix you might want to make for a road trip. I already talked about “Dream That We All Share,” but there's also “Family Coach,” which has one of Duffy's more arresting melodies and the instrumentation is layered such that it subtly gets thicker as it goes along. “Back in the Car Park” is another one of my favorites. Even though it's one of the slowest of these relatively slow songs, its bittersweet melody moves me deeply enough to want to read the lyrics. (“All of my life I've sang of the broken hearted / Now I've got nothing to say / All of your life you've followed a non-conformist / So, how come you came to change me?”)
To close, this album is consistently a pleasurable listen—that's interspersed with a handful GREAT moments. It might be one of The Lilac Time's weakest records, but this only goes to show how excellent these guys are. For awhile, I had scored it as an 11, and the reason for that was mostly due to its length. But upon another listen or two and further reflection, I've decided that this is clearly a 12. Without a second thought of the matter, if you're in the habit of picking up Stephen Duffy albums (and you should be!), then I wouldn't hesitate to add this to your collection. If nothing else, go to an online mp3 store and buy yourself a copy of “Dream That We All Share.” That's one of the finest country songs ever written.
Read the track reviews:
Released by The Lilac Time
The first words of this album are “Middle age / is all the rage,” which I think begins to describe the state Stephen Duffy's mind was in when he created this album. He seems to have sunk into comfortable contentedness, accepting the fact once and for all that he would never become a mega-selling artist (despite deserving it!), and he would spend the rest of his days just making nice, mellow folk-pop music. This is a remarkably pleasant album that's laden with beautifully textured acoustic guitars as well as plenty of dreamy slide guitar. I read that Duffy had originally wanted to call this album Beautiful Despair, but his band wouldn't let him. I guess that's not much of a name for an album, but it's a pretty apt description of what's inside of it.
That opening song was “Dance Out of the Shadows” by the way, which gets that gentle, melancholic vibe going strongly, and--as Stephen Duffy always seems to manage--it has a melody that lingers in my mind long after it's through playing. That is followed up with one of the poppier and sunnier tunes of the disc, “This Morning,” that features yet another excellent melody. Given somewhat tighter instrumentation, I think it could have been turned into a major hit in the '60s. If only it were the '60s! The next song “Come Home Everyone” is an utterly gorgeous low-key ballad. ...And I want to mention every single one of these songs, because I like them all!
My favorite song of this album seems to come out of nowhere, by the way, and sounds almost nothing like the others. “Entourage” is delightfully upbeat that—given somewhat harder instrumentation—would have worked out well on one of Duffy's bolder, mid-'90s solo albums. Although I do love the instrumentation, with its dazzling acoustic guitar patterns, exotic piano flourishes reminiscent of David Bowie's “Aladdin Sane,” and a drumbeat that gets thicker as the song progresses. This album is also yet another showcase of Duffy's excellent lyrics. I mean, I know I mention this in every single one of these reviews I write, but it seems like I kind of have to, because he's not nearly as celebrated as he ought to be. (“And if you think life's passing you by / So do I, so do I / Do you know you can live with your dreams / Before you die?”)
“Jeans + Summer” starts off with an acoustic riff reminiscent of “Louie Louie” until breaking into a soft chorus that rather resembles a '70s Beach Boys song. Without a doubt, that's a fun song and among the more memorable ones here. “Wasted” starts off as a somewhat uneventful and bleak ballad before breaking into a more striking chorus that manages to wedge itself in my mind. Naturally, this album is loaded with folk-country tunes--too many to mention--and the best of them is probably the shuffly and tuneful “I Want To Be Your Man.” ...There's a certain part of me that wants to say that Duffy's writing way too many folk-country tunes at this stage of his career, and they all start to sound alike at some point. Especially since they all seem to have that same slide guitar playing through them. However, if the songs continue to be as endearing as that one, then I say write away.
“Jupe Lounge” is one of Nick Duffy's characteristically blocky but merry instrumentals. It's amazing how obvious it is, whenever they pop up, that I'm listening to one of his pieces. He's gotta be one of the more unique acoustic arrangers out there. Although, I'd imagine he's not going to be to everyone's liking. He's also responsible for the album's closer “Junes Buffalo,” which comes in as more of a jumble, and I admit I have a little difficulty finding a foothold on that one. But at least it's a merry jumble.
The previous album nearly scored an 11, because I found its sameness a little too overwhelming even though I actually enjoyed all the songs on it. I also like all the songs on this album, and it's just a mite more diverse than the previous record. So I'll give this a slightly higher 12/15. Once again, I think this album proves that Stephen Duffy is one of the finer songwriters in the business, and it would surely do you good to give his stuff a go.
Dark Circles (2002)
Released by The Devils
I've said several times that Stephen Duffy was the original lead singer of Duran Duran, but he parted ways with the group long before they recorded their first album. If you didn't believe me, then here's the proof: The Devils, which is the name of the collaboration between Stephen Duffy and Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes. The two had happened to bump into each other in 1999, and they started reminiscing about the old Duran Duran days. It turned out also around that time that Duffy had recently uncovered a tape of a Duran Duran concert from 1979. After listening to that, they agreed it might be fun to re-record those songs in the studio. More than that, they would make the songs sound exactly as they would have in 1979.
For that reason, this is kind of a strange record. When I listen to it, I find it sort of entertaining and sort of not. It has its moments, but much of it I find to be quite dull. However, it's difficult for me to really question much of what they do here, since the whole point of this album was to try to recreate what a Duffy-led Duran Duran album would have sounded like.
So I guess I'm gathering is that the Duffy-led Duran Duran must not have been terribly great. I mean, they were good, but nothing to really flip out over. Everywhere I turn in this album, it seems like the experience is rife with unpleasant synthesizer tones and dull drum machine loops. It also seems like it takes too long for many of these songs to get started. For example, can anyone tell me honestly that the first minute of “Signals in Smoke” was necessary? All we get there is a very slow build-up of space-age noise. ...I guess you could call it a good noise, but it isn't until two minutes into it when Duffy finally gets around to singing his catchy tune.
I could say that all this album needed was a little more streamlined instrumentation. But I guess had they done that, it would have been completely missing the point of this release. You see, in 1979 Duran Duran were more about the art of music--of helping bring it into the future--and they were not about generating loads of hit songs. Although a few of these songs, such as “Come Alive,” I'd think had the makings of at least a minor hit. That is, if it were only given a slightly quicker pace and less cluttered keyboard tones. To me, what it sounds like in its current form is a lackadaisical and disorienting version of a song from Iggy Pop's New Values. I also wish they wouldn't have used that auto-tuner! ...The song is definitely catchy, so it does have that going for it.
The best song of the album, in my opinion, is “Big Store.” Although even then you're going to have to try to work yourself past those choppy drum-machines and screechy synthesizers that open the song. Once a regular drum machine beat pipes up along with a catchy bass-line, then I'm free to just sit back and enjoy it. One of the more memorable songs from the album is “Barbarellas.” Unfortunately, it's also a bit tedious to start out with, as we get nothing but a slow, dinky drum machine pattern and miserably low-key synthesizers. However, if you're patient enough, Duffy will start to sing a nice song about his early days playing gigs with Duran Duran. (“Full of hope at Barbarellas / We named our first group after Barbarellas / Got to play on stage at Barbarellas / Car park now instead of Barbarellas”)
“Aztec Moon” is another song's with a brilliant melody, and I feel a bit betrayed by the fact that it's instrumented with such droning synthesizers. But that's not as bad as “Hawks Don't Share,” which basically just drones along and never getting out of its funk. I think it's pretty obvious there that they were trying to create something along the lines of the instrumental portions of David Bowie's Low and “Heroes”, but whereas those songs drew me into their glory and despair, these ones fail to.
The one thing that I find interesting about this is that these early songs do very much resemble Stephen Duffy songs than they do Duran Duran songs. The obvious reason was that Duffy was actually the major songwriter for Duran Duran in 1979, and he has a penchant for creating uniquely breezy melodies. So I would say this release is far more recommended to Duffy fans than it would be to Duran Duran fans. That is, if the two things are mutually exclusive. 10/15
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