There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Nostalgia is disturbing. The yearning for that which cannot be reclaimed is inherently illogical, unresolvable, and spooky. Martin Heidegger thought that nostalgia was a symptom of the world’s fundamental anxiety, a kind of chronic homesickness. Vladimir Jankelevitch wrote that nostalgic enterprise is rendered moot by the irreversibility of time, and those that pursued it are forever unsettled and distressed. My own view of nostalgia is this: Anyone in my age group that still relishes the likes of Kajagoogoo and A-ha gives me the creeps.
But nostalgia is also, as the ongoing spate of tribute discs indicates, a convenient and effective vehicle for making money. Led Zeppelin, the Carpenters, and Kiss are just a few of the acts recently updated by such commercially viable artists as Sheryl Crow and the Gin Blossoms. On a slightly different note, The The has just released an album consisting solely of Hank Williams covers. But Duran Duran’s new, nearly-all-cover Thank You takes nostalgia to a new level: Eighties icons covering “classic rock” artists like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan suggests a kind of double nostalgia that is deeply unsettling.
After all, it’s been almost a decade since anyone really cared about Duran Duran. The group got its break in ’82 when MTV put its videos into infinite rotation and was arguably the first act to owe its success entirely to the then-fledgling music channel. However, Duran Duran floundered through a string of flops in the late ’80s before managing a marginal comeback on the strength of the surprisingly likable 1992 single “Ordinary World.” It’s difficult to imagine why the quartet—comprised of original members Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and John Taylor, along with superguitarist Warren Cuccurullo—would want to follow that mild success with an album made up almost entirely of other people’s tunes. Difficult, that is, until one hears “Drive By,” the album’s single Duran-penned tune. A ridiculous ambient knockoff, this yawner is justly buried toward the end of the disc’s 55 minutes.
Up to that point, however, Thank You is nothing if not well calculated. Duran Duran has performed major surgery on many of these songs, altering the melodies so that direct (and inevitably unfavorable) comparison to the originals is fruitless. In the quartet’s hands, Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” becomes a harmonica-driven honky-tonk, while Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” unfolds as an arid dub flavored by a bone-caressing bass pulse. Those songs that aren’t radically altered are made grandly psychedelic: Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” (also included on the Zep tribute Encomium) is awash with drifting synth chimes and spacey harmonizing, while the Doors’ “Crystal Ship” is strengthened by Cuccurullo’s ethereal guitars and vocalist Le Bon’s unexpectedly convincing Jim Morrison impression.
Thank You does, of course, boast a number of failures, principally due to Le Bon’s limited vocal range. He tends to sound good when surrounded by dense instrumentation, but the vocalist’s threadbare tones are apparent during the quieter moments of Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” It is, instead, Cuccurullo’s confident guitar work that distinguishes Thank You, particularly on the band’s buoyant renditions of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and the Temptations’ strutting “Ball of Confusion.” Cuccurullo’s a seasoned studio guitarist who’s worked with Frank Zappa and Missing Persons, and it would be easy to say his efforts carry the rest of the band on Thank You. Easy but for the presence of some 20 credited studio musicians who could make the same claim.
It’s all this hired help that makes Thank You a not-unsatisfying listen. The production is consistently slick, the musicianship formidable, and the covers, by and large, exuberant. Still, Thank You can’t shake the intellectual emptiness that plagues all tribute discs. Cover songs work best when your favorite band performs an ironic tune during an encore; say, Hüsker Dü goofing on the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme or Oasis affectedly taking on “I Am the Walrus.” The selections on Thank You are, indeed, at odds with Duran Duran’s image…but quite calculatedly so: The playlist conspicuously lacks any tunes from the group’s ’80s heyday. No Flock of Seagulls, no Fixx, no—dare I say it?—Falco. Only the original “911 Is a Joke” was recorded anytime recently, while all the other selections create a pointed ’70s (or earlier) ambience. Unfortunately, in attempting to flee their ’80s stigma, the boys in Duran Duran only call attention to the fact that they’re covering other artists’ timeless efforts.
While Duran Duran ducks its ’80s past, British vocalist Adam Ant, late of the extremely ’80s new wave quintet Adam and the Ants, revels in it. A far cry from contemporary rock’s obstreperous nihilism, Ant’s Wonderful is packed with fluffy pop melodies and cheeky lyrics containing nary a hint of angst. Furthermore, thanks to solid songwriting and an able voice, Ant sounds nothing at all like a pathetic has-been, even as he capitalizes on his own nostalgia value.
Not that Wonderful is a simple regurgitation of the ’80s aesthetic. In fact, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the vocalist’s own big-band dabblings during his days with the Ants. Instead, Wonderful smacks of the synth-based sassiness of George Michael, tastefully updated with acoustic guitars and live drums. The title track is an appropriately languid love song, while “Beautiful Dream” pairs a bouncy calypso rhythm with Ant’s musings on nookie in the ’90s: “It’s sex that sets your mind and body free/It’s sex keep away from the HIV.”
Most of Wonderful follows a similarly frivolous course: On the grooving “1969 Again,” Ant sings about “The bingy bingy bingy bingy bongy children,” and“Alien,” a song that just might be a commentary on immigration, is no less fun thanks to the peppy emotion of Ant and his backup singers. While other songs showcase Ant’s raw side—“Vampires” flaunts a dirty, meandering guitar, and “Very Long Ride” agreeably combines the same distorted six-string approach with penetrating bass—the disc’s sound is still reliably anachronistic. But, since the songs on Wonderful are inspired by honest musicianship rather than financial expedience, Ant can be forgiven his musings on the past.