Duran Duran, essential [night versions] (EMI)
Pulp, This Is Hardcore (Island)
I’m constantly amazed at how quickly rock critics are willing to declare that a particular sound is “dead.” If you believed everything you read, you thought disco died in 1980, even though you were probably dancing to “Don’t You Want Me” and “I Ran” a couple of years later. The latest knell has rock music flying with the California Condor, even though it was the Dave Matthews Banda rock combo if ever there was onewho finally knocked the Titanic soundtrack off the top of the album charts.
At any rate, what amuses me about these premature obituaries is the idea that “sounds” have some kind of limited life cycleafter which hipsters only indulge the music for nostalgic kicks. I’m sure just such a kitsch factor is behind the release of Duran Duran’s essential [night versions], the latest in EMI-Capitol’s increasingly bizarre “Essentials” series. But what this compilation of dance remixes really shows is that, for a few years at least, Duran Duran cultivated a sound that was abandoned way too soon.
For one thing, Duran Duran took a unique approach to the 12-inch dance single. While lazy synth-poppers simply extended a song intro by creating a three-minute loop, Duran Duran actually rerecorded their hits in longer versions, with vamping breaks that came off much tighter and warmer than any Arthur Baker boom-box fiasco. They called these “night versions,” and some of their best early songs were given this treatment“Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film,” “My Own Way,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and “New Religion.”
The night versions collection adds more conventional remixes of “Rio,” “Hold Back the Rain,” and “Is There Something I Should Know?” before collapsing into the dreck of Duran Duran’s dreadful “middle period”: “Union of the Snake,” “The Reflex,” and “Wild Boys.” For the first half of the collection, though, the band sounds far more supple than I remembered them. In their prime, Duran Duran were a weightless but luxurious amalgamation of Roxy Music and Stationtostation-era David Bowie. Their lyrics were awful, true, but the current breed of English pop sensations could learn a trick or two from the Durannies, who knew how to work a good groove and show a smiling face from time to time.
One of Britrock’s latest causes célèbres, Pulp, actually dates back to the glory years of Duran Duran. In 1983, when the synth-pop elders released Seven and the Ragged Tiger (one of the worst albums ever cut by a chart-topping combo), Pulp released its debut LP, It. After 10 years and a few more records, the group finally began to hit its stride. By 1994’s His ’N’ Hers, Pulp had left behind wan, Aztec Camera-y social ballads in favor of broadly theatrical dance music.
Pulp’s sound on His ’N’ Hers has similarities to Duran Duran, inasmuch as both bands borrow liberally from Bowie. Pulp’s platter of choice is Lodgerthe record on which the Thin White Duke turned fractured rhythms and expatriate aloofness into cozy, catchy pop music. Frontman and songwriter Jarvis Cocker’s croon is often blatantly Bowie-esque (when he’s not channeling Nick Cave or ABC’s Martin Fry), and his mates back him up with sounds that range from thumping rock to intricate tapestries of folk guitar and disco synths.
The band can write some lovely melodies, but it’s Cocker’s lyrics that have garnered Pulp so much attention. His ’N’ Hers illustrated the sex lives of the partying class with a voyeuristic glee. Pulp’s next albumthe spectacularly lauded Different Classtook the time-honored rock subject of British class consciousness and again filtered it through the prism of sex. Now comes the group’s latest and best album, This Is Hardcore, wherein all the illicit affairs, mind-altering substances, and late nights begin to take their toll.
The liner art sets the tone of the record: The cover depicts a prone, naked woman sporting a blank expression. On the inside, printed lyrics are interspersed with colorful photos of haggard men and women hanging out in bars and hotel rooms. One picture shows a sad-faced man watching a live, lesbian sex show; another shows a scantily clad woman curled on the floor in a stupor while a man sits slumped in a chair rubbing his head.
Arrayed with such chilling images, This Is Hardcore opens with the equally frosty “The Fear,” a blunt account of a swinger’s sad life. “This is our Music From a Bachelor’s Den,” Cocker sings at the song’s opening. “The sound of loneliness turned up to 10.” Over swirling feedback and an intermittent martial beat, Cocker describes how it feels to walk into a pub with a smile on your face and self-loathing in your heart. “You’re no longer searching for beauty or love,” he sings, “just some kind of life with the edges taken off.”
From there, This Is Hardcore moves through a dozen tableaux of desperate people who meet, share a few drinks, and let slip a little truth. In the title track, the singer realizes to his horror that the sexual encounter he’s engaged in is every bit as empty as the on-camera cavorting of porn stars. In “A Little Soul,” an absentee father confronts his grown son with the violent, friendless creature the younger man could easily become. On the furious dance track “Party Hard,” Cocker sings in exhausted tones of a man ready to abandon the night life for something more meaningful. In what could serve as the album’s mantra, the song ends with the line, “Now the party’s over, will you come home to me?” Is Cocker singing to a person or an ideathe hope of solace, perhaps?
The concept portion of This Is Hardcore ends with “The Day After the Revolution,” wherein Cocker rubs his eyes on the morning of a brighter day and greets the hope of a healthier life. The album then closes with a tacked-on singlethe terrific kiss-off “Like a Friend,” featured on the Great Expectations soundtrack. (Some free career advice: If Pulp wants to conquer the American market, they should play “Like a Friend” on every late-night show; then they should follow it up with videos for the rollicking “Party Hard” and the soaring “A Little Soul.”)
This is Pulp’s best album for two reasons. One, the music is as lush, sweeping, and complex as any they have previously attempted. Although the production verges on sounding bombastic at times, the addition of strings and horns makes Cocker’s horror stories sound downright cinematic. Since the group found its sound on His ’N’ Hers, Pulp has sounded exclusively like Pulp. Yes, there are strains of Bowie, Queen, Springsteen, Sondheim, Talking Heads, and Portishead, but unlike Oasis and Blur, Pulp combines hot sounds both old and new to create something with sinew and a pulse.
And a heart. That’s the other thing elevating This Is Hardcore: a feeling of sympathy that was largely absent from Pulp’s earlier work. Different Class was an especially nasty album, taking the piss out of the rich in the grand tradition of The Kinks, The Jam, and The Housemartins. Although the record produced one masterpiecethe single “Common People”songs like “Mis-Shapes” and “I Spy” were so mean-spirited as to sap the listener’s enjoyment. The songs on This Is Hardcore are more in the vein of previous Pulp classics like “Babies,” “Disco 2000,” and “Sorted for Es and Whizz.” Although these peek-a-boo games are a little bleaker, Cocker can’t bring himself to be totally nihilistic about the characters he’s describing...maybe because he knows he’s one of them.
That Cocker sets this vision to spiffed-up rock music is a bonus. The rock press tends to reward novelty when it should be keeping an ear cocked for melodic invention, lyrical depth, and bold arrangements. As a result, critics tend to encourage bands to move on like dilettantes before they’ve fully developed a sound. Over the course of its last three albums, Pulp has made a stunning musical and thematic leap. The group has taken the same sounds that Duran Duran used as teenybopper chic and converted them into music that is bluntly, dazzlingly adult.
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