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The Boston Phoenix LeBon Voyage

Duran Duran cruise into the '90s

By Clea Simon

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  How can you take Duran Duran seriously? I mean, outside of the kitsch appeal of hits like "Rio" these pretty Brits were poster boys for new-wave banality. For a few years after their 1981 debut, the band did reliably churn out some sticky sweet ear candy: "Hungry like the Wolf" and "Planet Earth" adhered like taffy to radio playlists, thanks perhaps as much to original producer Colin Thurston as to remaining members keyboardist Nick Rhodes and singer Simon LeBon. But even those guilty pleasures are best enjoyed today through irreverent tributes, like those by the short-lived local Squad Car, or the exuberant covers by Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish on The Duran Duran Tribute Album (see " Off the Record,"). And most of the albums, certainly from 1984's Seven and the Ragged Tiger on down, were pure schlock.

Not that Duran Duran ever stopped charting -- 1993's Duran Duran even yielded two Top Ten singles. The band crested with video, discovering (surprise, surprise) that sex sells, a formula that's lasted into the '90s. By loading girls on the film and paying almost as much attention to their own New Romantic 'dos, they were the original coif & boff boys, mesmerizing via MTV. Which was all fine in its time. But to be told, now, that with Medazzaland (Capitol) the blow-dry boys have discovered techno and gotten dark . . . well, it's a little hard to stomach.

The linkage may make sense as far as the music's concerned. Duran Duran did pioneer the kind of generic dance music that helped spawn techno. Their synthesizers prefigured electronica's bleeps and dits, and their sales-smart insistence on club-ready rhythms may have helped pave rave's ways. But the rationale ends there, as a replay of any of their hits makes clear. In their heyday, Duran Duran were essentially lush pop dreamers, heirs to Roxy Music, and way more likely to swoon than snarl.

Now that they've gotten serious, on this second attempt to crack the pre-millennial decade, Duran Duran just sound a little lost. Sure, LeBon tries to get down to some personal depth in "Undergoing Treatment," but he comes across as unconvincing as post-Beatles Paul McCartney. Granted, it's near impossible to swagger to such a spare, nearly acoustic backing, but this is not a man who can convey lyrics about depression -- or any serious emotion that reaches above the belt. Not that this is all bad: Simon LeBon is supposed to exude sex, but here that highly commercial skill only undercuts him. "So Long Suicide," for example, is one of the slow, moody numbers that dominate this disc. With its heavy bass and ever-so-slightly grunge-roughened guitar (courtesy of new addition Warren Cuccurullo), it starts out like a Stone Temple Pilots song, Pearl Jam lite. But as soon as LeBon opens up, slurring and eliding his way around the title, he downgrades this supposed flirtation with death into a purely PG tease.

More than LeBon's limited delivery, it's the songwriting on Medazzaland that lets you down. The disc opens moderately well, with a nice butt-bouncing beat percolating along the title track. But then nothing happens. Where we want hooks, we get electronically altered vocals, expensive processing that makes the disconnected lyrics sound cheap and tinny and supposedly alienated. "Do I have any feeling left?", LeBon asks the '90s. "Do they really understand what's wrong?" He gets the cheap-and-tinny part right, at least.

This is a band who don't know what they want to be anymore. "Big Bang Generation" could be a Bowie outtake, circa Low. "Now that I'm so alien . . . " LeBon sings, as a choppy wave of sound links his whine and some bad keyboard bleats. Ditto "Silva Halo": where are you, Major Tom? But the alternatives are either those misguided ballads or the cheap earnestness that peaks in "Who Do You Think You Are?" And that's ponderous to the point of embarrassment. Bon Jovi gone bad, it's truly Poison.

The only redeeming cut here is "Electric Barbarella," a sexy, swaggering single of the old school. Maybe it sneers, but it does so to a compelling synthesized beat. The vocals soar around the title line, all fantasy lust and unnaturally smooth sounds. We are dancing, and we love ourselves again. We are beautiful: it's the '80s again. This tune alone harks back to the "Rio" era of narcissistic intoxication. Aural coke.

But then comes the letdown. The depressive songs, and their even more depressive half melodies and derivations. We need another hit; instead we find ourselves turning to the tributes, to the old songs, which were acres more ebullient than anything on this depressing little album. Medazzaland's one flashback comes way too expensively. How can we have a reasonable Duran Duran revival if they won't go away?

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