Monday, May 14, 2018

Albums of Influence: Rio by Duran Duran

This record inevitably turns up on any list of "best" or "most important" albums for me. A surprisingly rich, lush, and deep pop record. The feelings and moods the songs themselves conjure are long since fused to the feelings and moods I had while experiencing this album for the first time. It felt like many teenage experiences, that of discovering new frontiers and mysterious new territory.

Duran Duran crystallized my idea of what a modern rock band should be: synthesizers, guitars, bass (fretless sometimes!), drums, and vocals, all on equal footing. Writing catchy but still somewhat strange songs that don't reference "the blues" or rock and roll cliché.

Of course, Duran Duran (like all bands) had their own influences. Rio saw them moving away from the strict "Chic meets the Sex Pistols" vibe they had gone for on their brilliant debut and moving into more colorful territory (reflected even in the differences between their stark and minimal first album and the rich pastels of Rio's cover). I hear Roxy Music and Japan, among other things.

At the time, the band was frequently accused of being all image, a band for teenage girls. But the impeccably-designed cover doesn't even have a picture of the band on it (one of the only Duran Duran albums without their photo on the front, in fact).

A solid record with 100% great songs. They're all tight, hooky, and focused. Almost every track is danceable. There are some fancy intros and experimental bits ("New Religion"). A mellow ballad (the lovely "Save A Prayer"). The songs have dynamics, with rising and falling, and interesting bridges,to boot. I never skip any of these songs when they come up on shuffle.

Listening back to this record today, what strikes me is how unlike "the 80s" the album sounds, how not-cartoonish it is. 

There's no gated reverb on the drums. Yes, there are Simmons electronic toms on the record, but they're played by a real, live drummer (just like Van Halen!). While the songs have been played to a click or drum machine, very few parts sound sequenced. The record sounds like a band playing in the studio, with acoustic drums, electric bass, and electric guitar at the forefront. It sounds like pop rock, and I think it still sounds fresh.

There are very few synthesizers on the record, limited to Nick's Crumar string ensemble (frequently in the background, with Oxygene-ish phasing applied) and typically just one other synthesizer or piano per track (Roland Jupiter-8 or Jupiter-4). Those parts may be prominent throughout ("Save a Prayer"), but are usually driving in the background or only occasionally brought to the foreground. The synthesizers are brought up for emphasis or seasoning in tracks, and do not overpower the guitars or bass (see also: INXS).

The exception is album-closer "The Chauffeur", which is driven by sequencers and an 808 drum machine, until real drums and bass kick in towards the end. It still feels like a part of the same record, and not a radical shift.

Fretless bass pops up on a few tracks, but rather than the kind of busy bass virtuosity John Taylor displayed on most early tracks (listen to the bass part on the title track!), it's used for emotional effect, smoothly gliding around.

One cannot talk about Rio without mentioning the spectacular and ground-breaking videos the band did for almost every song. Like many artifacts from the 80s, they can seem a little campy today, but it is also impossible to imagine modern music video without the influence the videos provided. 

Made on surprisingly low budgets, the videos pay homage to films, play with colors and primitive video effects, and stay as far away from "lip synching on a stage" as possible. They are moody and fun, and the band look like they are having a great time. And for a teenager, the Helmut Newton-ian lesbian-ish S&M of "The Chauffeur" was shocking and powerful.

I was captivated by this record the moment I first heard it. I think it is Duran Duran's best album. I still try to make things this good, this timeless.

[these album write-ups are presented as they are written, the sequence should not indicate any sense of relative importance.]

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