Duran Duran: Astronaut

Duran Duran - AstronautI grew up on Duran Duran. Duran was the first band I was ever into. And, although it would hardly be the last, they remain an all-time favourite. Oh, sure, during the ’80s they gradually strayed far away from what I initially fell in love with, but they were still Duran Duran.

However, after their resurgence in 1993 with the self-titled “Wedding Album”, they made a few faux pas: they released a lacklustre covers album in 1995, followed it up with the half-baked ‘Medazzaland’ in 1997, and then pushed the final nail in with ‘Pop Trash’.

I no longer cared. It’s not for lack of trying: I loved the opening salvos of ‘Medazzaland’ and played it often enough that I hoped the rest would grow on me. It never did. And I gave as many spins as I could to its successor. But it bored me to tears and I avoid it now.

Still, when I heard rumours that Duran Duran’s “Fab Five” line-up had reunited, my ears perked up. I cynically saw their subsequent tour -their first together in 20 years- as a desperate adrenaline shot to their faltering career, but I became curious and paid attention again.

When word came out that they were recording a new album, I wasn’t especially hopeful, however: reunions don’t always work out and some bands spend years “working on new material” with nothing ever coming of it. And, if something does, the result is often disappointing.

Then Duran Duran showed up at the 2003 MTV Awards. The hype was building. Celebrity tributes were pouring in.

Finally, seemingly out of nowhere (at least to me), a new album was finally announced. Titled ‘Astronaut’, of all things, this 2004 offering would be the first studio album by the “Fab Five” since 1983’s ‘Seven and the Ragged Tiger’. I was curious and cautiously optimistic about it.

I was one of the first to buy it. And, naturally, I bought the special edition, which came in an oversized digipak and included a bonus DVD of behind-the-scenes material from their Wembley dates. Unsurprisingly, I listened to it first thing when I got home that night.

My initial experience left me on the fence.

On the one hand, the album had some really terrific tracks on it, some of their best in goodness knows how long, but, on the other, it seemed to lack fire, an urgency that imbued their earliest efforts. Truth be told, I felt that it shot its load right at the onset and gradually faded away.

Having said this, I felt that the descriptions I had read, that it was a mix of old Duran with new Duran was quite à propos: it had the edge (thanks to Andy), but also had some of that slick quality from their ’90s efforts. So my expectations had been adjusted appropriately.

Fans responded to the album with enthusiasm: It was by far their biggest seller in a decade, eventually selling over a million copies worldwide. Similarly, its lead single put them in the top 5 around the world for the first time in ages. This was Duran Duran’s (second) comeback.

Still, something felt wrong to me; I couldn’t help but think that ‘Astronaut’s sequence was off, that it could have flowed a bit better. Naturally, I soon got cracking at re-editing the album, at moving the songs around. After I found a sequence that I liked, that flowed, I re-cut it.

Titling it ‘”Astronaut” Redux’, I made myself a CD copy of the result, a one-track mix that I’ve been playing incessantly ever since. In fact, even a decade later, this new edit of the album has become my go-to mood enhancer and a fantastic way to start my day. It’s a gem.

Here is what ‘”Astronaut” Redux’ looks like (annotations follow):

1. Finest Hour
2. Want You More!
3. One of Those Days
4. Chains
5. Taste the Summer (edit)
6. Bedroom Toys
7. Nice
8. What Happens Tomorrow
9. Point of No Return
10. Astronaut
11. (Reach Up for the) Sunrise
12. Still Breathing

Notes
Since the original album has a ratio of five high energy tracks versus seven slower ones, I felt it essential to spread it all out differently so that the bottom doesn’t drop out completely or so that it doesn’t feel like a collection of ballads. I also wanted it to build-up to a close, a reversal of the original album’s petering out after a few tracks.

1. Finest Hour: Starting with a high energy track already hobbles the rest of the album; it leaves only four tracks to work with. I felt that a smooth opener, especially this one’s fade in, would be a nice way to ease into things. Further to that, its chorus sounds like a mission statement for the band. I felt it was better suited to start the album with than sandwiched, as it was on the original, in last third of the album. Musically, it’s a really nice intro, too, with its lovely guitar work by Andy and brilliantly lush atmospheres by Nick. 8.25

2. Want You More!: You don’t want to start too soft, either. While “Finest Hour” eases things in, you want to kick off the album at some point and this does the trick marvelously with its deliciously phat bass, wicked beat and superb acoustic bridge. It’s great fun. And yes, it makes you want more of Duran Duran! Of note, this is one of only two tracks that ended up in the same spot as the original. 8.0

3. One of Those Days: Although this song takes it down a notch, I feel that Simon’s “one-two, one-two” beat is better at keeping the pace after a punchy number than at raising the momentum after a slow song (as on the original cut). This ditty features some truly beautiful melodies by Simon. 8.0

4. Chains: I felt that “One of Those Days” was taking it down a notch gradually, and that it led to a slower track such as this one. Ironically, they’re switched around on the original album. I merged the two so that the bass smoothly blends into the closing bit of the last track. This one features terrific melodies by Simon and excellent musical passages by John and Andy. I especially love the dreamy ’60s “nah nah nahs” towards the end. 8.0

5. Taste the Summer: Enough of this slow stuff: it’s time to punch it up again! This is an infectious song with a super groove; it’s pretty much a party song. I was utterly surprised that it didn’t become a summer anthem. I really love the Sarah McLachlan-esque vocal textures on this one and the edge that Andy’s guitar gives the track. The original album version has a this long-winded opening that teases but takes too much time to release – so I trimmed it for effect. 8.5

6. Bedroom Toys: This one is a sleazy but kitschy slice of slow funk. With its cringe-worthy lyrics, some would surely call it corny. I honestly had no idea where to put this one. Considering that the original album was obviously sequenced for vinyl, I decided to do the same here. I felt that this would close the first side well enough and lead into the second half rather well. 7.5

7. Nice: Always start a side on a high note, if at all possible. With three high energy numbers left, I thought “Nice” would give people reason to flip the vinyl (or continue the CD, as the case may be). And it boots back up nicely after “Bedroom Toys” (just as it did on the original). It’s simply a nice, high-energy song. Apparently it was considered as a third single, but poor promotion killed that plan. 8.0

8. What Happens Tomorrow: I transitioned “Nice” into this one so that they’re inseparable. It features really nice textures and strings by Nick, lovely bass groove by John and a terrific vocal close by Simon. It’s an excellent track, but it’s not single material in my estimation. Honestly, I may not be alone in this, given that it failed as the follow-up to “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise”. 7.5

9. Point of No Return: This one takes up from the previous track with its electronic “woos”, before going into a terrific groove, courtesy of John. This one moves forward beautifully, picking up the pace. It features yummy spacey sounds from Nick, a stunning drum beat and guitar bridge, as well as a memorable chorus by Simon. 8.25

10. Astronaut: Always save the best for last (or nearly last, in this case). Possibly the best song on the album, this starts off with a genius guitar lick, even if it is acoustic, and a phat bass sound; it totally kicks it. Then the chorus totally goes for it. It also has an awesome guitar bridge. How this wasn’t issued as a single is beyond me: I’ve heard of people rushing dance floors to this track. Honest. Sadly it’s marred by a lazy and cheesy lyric: “Space is hot and deep”? Really, Simon…? 8.5

11. (Reach Up for the) Sunrise: This one starts too abruptly for my taste; it’s like it’s missing a proper intro and it seems to me designed as a final salvo. In some ways it’s an incomplete song, being also all too brief. And it suffers from a new agey lyric. But it’s catchy as !@#$. Infectiously so. To me, its uplifting (if a bit simple-minded) message seemed like a good way to close the album. 8.0

12. Still Breathing: Of all the tracks, this is absolutely the best closer, a beautiful way to ease out of the album: it features great vocals, a lovely musical breakdown and delicious layers from the whole band. So I made it the encore of ‘”Astronaut” Redux’. This is one of only two tracks that finds itself in the same place in my edit as on the original cut. 8.25

nota bene: the ratings I give each song is based on their juxtaposition in my version. Juxtaposition is everything: listened to separately, or juxtaposed in different ways, they may rate higher/lower. I know I’m totally biased since I positioned them myself, but so be it.

DIY ‘”Astronaut” Redux’
In order to recreate ‘”Astronaut” Redux’, here are some simple instructions. The times listed below take in consideration added/reduced spacing between tracks to make the final result flow better.

(b-t-w,  it’s been a decade since I first put it together, so I had to return to my copy and analyze it. This may only be 98% accurate…)

1. Finest Hour: Fade out at the end.
2. Want You More!: Insert at the 3m50s mark of the set.
3. One of Those Days: Insert at the 7m26s mark.
4. Chains: Insert at the 11:06s mark.
5. Taste the Summer: Trim the opening 21 seconds, up to and including the beat. Start at the first “Doo doo doo”. Insert at the 15m51s mark.
6. Bedroom Toys: Insert at the 19:24m mark.
7. Nice: Insert at the 23m15s mark.
8. What Happens Tomorrow: Fade in slightly so that its intro blends into the end of “Nice”. The song should properly begin at the 26m41s mark.
9. Point of No Return: Insert at the 30m42s mark.
10. Astronaut: Insert at the 35m34s mark.
11. (Reach Up for the) Sunrise: Insert at the 39m02s mark.
12. Still Breathing: Insert at the 42m27s mark.

Voilà: ‘”Astronaut” Redux’! The total runtime of the set should be 48m28s.

In any case, for all my criticisms, unlike most people I prefer ‘Astronaut’ to the band’s 1993 worldwide smash (although the album version of “Ordinary World” is one of their all-time stand-out tracks); it’s without a doubt my favourite Duran Duran album in decades. I’d give it an 8.0.

‘Astronaut’ DualDisc
In fact, I like the album so much that I even tracked down the rare DualDisc edition so that I might have it in a higher resolution format, complete with a 5.1 surround mix. Although I don’t like the original sequence nearly as much, this is such sweet ear candy on my sound system.

Plus which it’s stocked with an additional 22 minutes’ worth of exclusive extras:

Duran Duran – Back Together: This is a short EPK that features lots of behind-the-scenes studio and promotional stuff. It has each band member talking separately about the reunion, kissing each other’s butts eagerly and discussing the new album, its producers, and the “Sunrise” music video.

The making of “Sunrise” video: This consists of behind-the-scenes footage on the set and on location for the video – to the song itself, followed by one of its remixes. There’s lots of footage and locations, much of which is barely seen in the finished video.

“Astronaut” release: This takes us all over the world on a promotional tour with the band, doing radio appearances, autograph signings, …etc. Interestingly, Andy’s not there for parts of it. There’s also some concert footage and gushing fan testimonials.

In sum, none of the above is anything new, but its adequately interesting and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s enough of a glimpse into the fuss around the reunion and subsequent album. Sure, something more substantive might be nice, but these are merely extras, after all.

‘Astronaut’ SE
For good or bad (depending on whether or not fans really want to get it all), the extras on the DualDisc version of the album are actually totally different from the ones on the Special Edition. This one comes not only with the CD but also with a DVD that includes a couple of extras.

Live at Wembley 2004: Clocking in at approximately 45 minutes, it takes us on tour, showing us some press stuff, behind-the-scenes footage of their sold-out concerts at Wembley Arena in April of 2004 (leading Andy to claim that their return to venues of this size is for the foreseeable future…).

It also features full performances of “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise”, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, “What Happens Tomorrow”, “New Religion” and “The Wild Boys”. Unfortunately, on top of the crappy 4:3 letterboxing, the mix is so poor that the live stuff sounds anemic, sloppy – a real put off.

“(Reach Up for the) Sunrise” music video: This one starts with a slow shot of the sun rising over a mountain. There are inserts of each band member doing their thing: Andy walking on a beach, Roger waking up then driving around, Nick floating around a city night in a kitschy UFO, John wandering around the desert with his bass, and Simon driving around on a dirt bike.

The rest of the time, the full band is performing the song, blue-screened into an orangey, sunny sky filled with clouds. The latter looks so cheap, with them so awkwardly super-imposed into the picture, that it hurts to watch, that it makes you wonder what happened to the innovators they used to be; it looks cheap even in comparison to their peers’ videos. I’m not a big fan of it.

Song = 7.75 / Video = 6.75

***********************************************************************

I firmly believe that ‘Astronaut’ didn’t get a fair chance.

Firstly, most people likely based themselves on its lead single, which really isn’t representative of the bulk of its content. Add to this a cheap-@$$ video and the fact that it paints Duran Duran as a bit soft, lacking the edge that we used to love, and it’s no wonder it stumbled a bit.

Had the lead single been the title track, and the video given a proper budget, the band might have made more of an impact with ‘Astronaut’, truly leading to one of their finest hours. Alas, their nearly-stellar comeback vehicle is mostly forgotten by anyone but die-hard fans these days.

And it really didn’t have to be this way.

Advertisements

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s