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The one thing that people who know about Stephen Duffyand in the United States, that’s not very many peopleknow about him is that he was the original singer in Duran Duran. That’s enough to disqualify him from founding an Old English sort of country-rock band, but there’s more: He’s from Birmingham, Britain’s hardly bucolic Second City; he scored a couple of ’80s hits as synth-popper Tin Tin, and he’s more popular in Tokyo than Nashville. Nonetheless, Duffy and a shifting cast of collaboratorsthe only lifer being his brother, multi-instrumentalist Nickhave recorded six albums as the Lilac Time, a back-lanes pop-rock combo that took its name from a line in a Nick Drake song and its sound fromwell, from no one, exactly, although the Lilacs could be said to be distant relations of Fairport Convention.
Duffy is no Gillian Welch, rubbing his overalls with potting soil in hopes that someone might mistake him for a sharecropper. To judge from the duds he’s wearing in Lilac6’s CD-booklet photos, the singer-songwriter hasn’t changed his carefully tailored, almost Parisian look since the early ’90s, when he disbanded the Lilacs in frustration after four commercially neglected albums and remade himself as a suave (if commercially neglected) pop-rocker. (“Tomorrow I’ll be dropped by BMG/Doesn’t bother me,” he sang on the band’s reunion album, 1999’s Looking for a Day in the Night.) Joining his among the liner shots are images of such inspirations as Jackson Pollock, Brian Jones, Jeanne Moreau, Bob Dylan, and Carl Junga rogues’ gallery of ’60s cool. The album, coyly subtitled “Beautiful Despair and Other Folktales” on the lyric sheet, features lots of plaintive steel guitar, but one of its liveliest songs, “Jeans + Summer,” is a paean to young love”Leave your sun dress behind/We’re blameless”that invokes the Lovin’ Spoonful atop the chords from “Louie Louie.”
Of course, Duffy himself isn’t exactly young anymore. “Middle age/It’s all the rage,” announces the 40-year-old musician in “Dance Out of the Shadows,” the album’s opening track. With its acoustic-strum style and slow-dance tempo, the tune recalls the Lilacs’ pastoral debut, made before Duffy and his cohorts modulated their rustic-rock with soaring choruses (the blissfully melodic Paradise Circus), Beatlesy psychedelia (& Love for All, which was partially produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge), and outer-spaciness (Astronauts, a likely prototype for intergalactic-country bands such as Grandaddy and the Radar Brothers). Buoyed by Claire Worrall’s harmonies, however, many of these songs soar high above the hedgerows. Lilac6 is no Paradise Circus, but it’s a lot more outgoing than Looking for a Day in the Night.
Duffy has described himself as a writer of love songs, and most of these 12 tracksexcepting the two Nick Duffy-penned instrumentalsqualify. Still, the composer has a few other specialties. On the puckish side are his letter bombs to the biz, which include this album’s wry “Entourage”: “I want to sleep with you and your entourage,” he croons in a song co-written with one of his closest links to chart success, Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page. (Duffy has been paying his bills in part with royalties from songs he co-wrote for the Ladies, and most of the Canadian band plays on Lilac6.)
Duffy can also be earnest about subjects other than love and its lossthe Lilac Time wasn’t formed simply because he has a brother who plays the banjo. In such earlier Lilacs songs as “Return to Yesterday” and “Let Our Land Be the One,” rural England represents a leftist ideal of fellowship that American small-town life never has: “It was the day before the day before yesterday/When we thought everything would now go our way/We inherited a fortune of innocence/And they took it all away” are the first words of the band’s first single. On Lilac6, this theme is taken up by “Come Home Everyone,” a less direct call for restoration of community.
Idealistic, ambitious, sardonic, and almost unfailingly tuneful, Duffy is very nearly worthy of the ’60s-icon company he’s allowed himself in the CD booklet. As frustrating as dancing in the shadows may be, relative obscurity seems to have preserved both his skills and his disposition.
Though they’re now resident in the not-so-big city of Cardiff, the core members of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci really did grow up in a small town, southwest Wales’ Carmarthen. Like Duffy, these 20-something multi-instrumentalists raised themselves on the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and the Incredible String Band. The last wasn’t the outer limits, however, for principal songwriter Euros Childs and his bandmates; they also explored Krautrock, Captain Beefheart, trad jazz, medieval music, and the Soft Machine. Most of those influences can be discerned, if only dimly, beneath the placid surfaces of the quintet’s seventh long-player, How I Long to Feel That Summer in My Heart.
The album follows a pleasant EP, The Blue Trees, that is as painstakingly old-timey as its mock-78-rpm cover art. Summer is a little livelierbut just a little. A collection of baroque-country madrigals about love and/or the weather, it’s considerably less poppy than the cover image, which depicts a yellow soft-drink can. (Gorky’s has had some minor chart hits in the U.K. but clearly doesn’t want to commodify its eccentricity anymore.) As the album title suggests, many of the tunes are about remembering summer’s pleasures, not experiencing them. Only a few take musical side trips that recall the band’s eclectic early days: “Her Hair Hangs Long” builds to a bracing Velveteen drone, and Megan Childs’ “Cân Megan” (“Megan’s Song”) lilts into an easygoing variant of Western swing. Mostly, though, Summer surveys the narrow realm between pensive and wistful.
That’s fine when Euros Childs or Richard James (who wrote three of the songs) hits upon a melody that’s stronger than the band’s “heart”-rhymes-with-“from the start” lyrics. “Stood on Gold,” “Easy Love,” and “Let Those Blue Skies” are charming, and the closing “Hodgeston’s Hallelujah” is gorgeous. Some of the tracks, however, sound like arrangements in search of songs; violin, banjo, pedal steel, electronics, and a dozen guest musicians gently vie with the basic rock-band instrumentation, while all are lapped by swells of Michael Ratledge-style organ. Perhaps it’s a small miracle that so many instruments can end up sounding so spare, but what’s the point of throwing in everything including the kitchen sink if the result isn’t going to be as playful and unpredictable as the band’s original style? Only about half of Summer sounds becalmed, but that’s an alarming proportion for a band that was once the world’s leading champion of musical attention-deficit disorder. CP