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Duran Duran is at a turning point (again) and ready for reinvention

By Crispin Kott

There has never been a band more unfairly forced to prove itself than Duran Duran. Despite existing in one form or another since 1978, each of the group’s albums since its fourth have been called a “comeback” by the media. The stately manors the band has scattered across the globe might as well be stacked in a huge pile at the far end of “Turning Point,” because that’s where they’ve actually been living for all these years. But the guys are set to return once again with their latest release, Red Carpet Massacre, which includes a run of 10 shows over two weeks at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre beginning November 1.
The people who were irked by Duran Duran’s brazen coke-snorting, sport-fucking lifestyle back in the ’80s have never really been given a chance to gloat over its demise. Sure, there were tours during the lean years when the band played theme parks and when its albums didn’t even get worldwide releases. But through it all, Duran Duran—in name, if not exactly spirit—kept right on rolling.

And they still have it going on, the bastards. When daredevil singer Simon Le Bon married model Yasmin Parvaneh in the ’80s, pundits rolled their eyes and smugly said it wouldn’t last. Well, they’re still together, they’re still beautiful and they still seem appallingly happy.

The most sensible way to consider the career of Duran Duran is to break each milestone down into distinct chapters. Most recently, in the spring of 2001, the band’s career took an unexpected turn when rumors began to circulate of a reunion of the original five members. In July 2003, the Fab Five hit Japan for their first shows together in 18 years.

In 2006, the reunion chapter officially drew to a close. After recording an album’s worth of material, provisionally called Reportage, Duran Duran and Andy Taylor abruptly parted company.The band scrapped Reportage and began a completely new album.

To say Red Carpet Massacre is a turning point for Duran Duran now is a wild understatement. Their first album for Epic, 2004’s Astronaut, was a modest commercial success at best. After decades of a slow, methodical approach to recording, most of Massacre was finished within a year. And depending on whom you ask, working with Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Nate “Danja” Hills on their new album is either a stroke of genius or a complete disaster. If Massacre is a flop, what happens next? Despite the obstacles in their way, however, Duran Duran’s new album isn’t a flop. Well, not an artistic one, anyway.
The album opens with “The Valley,” a tune with an unmistakably Timbaland-crafted beat that eventually turns out to be more Hot Chip than hip-hop. “Box Full O’ Honey” and “She’s Too Much” are sentimental and gorgeous and guaranteed to get the lighters and cell phones aloft in the crowd.

Sure, there are a few duds, though they’re mostly lyrical in nature, and perhaps unlike past efforts which recently earned Le Bon the No. 26 spot on Blender magazine’s “40 Worst Lyricists in Rock” list, they’re the exception rather than the norm. Nowhere is this disparity better illustrated than on “Skin Divers,” where the album’s worst line (the one about the “hoi polloi”) is immediately followed by its best. “Zoom In” is nearly sunk by essentially serving as an advertisement for the band’s still unfulfilled promises of a utopian Duran Duran paradise on internet-based virtual world Second Life. “Last Man Standing,” Red Carpet Massacre’s closing salvo, has a much tougher time. The melody works, but the lyrics are like listening to self-help guru Anthony Robbins re-write A Fistful of Dollars.

But those are minor gaffes in an otherwise excellent release. The roaring “Dirty Great Monster” features a sax solo that peels paint, “Nite Runner” is pure sex and “Tricked Out” is an instrumental that’s sort of like The Horrors as led by Esquivel or Danny Elfman.

Past albums—like the house-laden Big Thing—have seen Duran Duran hit upon a theme just as it’s slipping through the doorway, and while working with Timbaland and Timberlake may have become de rigueur as of late, everything here sounds fresh.

But will it work live? It’s a question Duran Duran must be pondering even now as they prepare to introduce Massacre with their run the Barrymore this week. The shows are being billed as an event (with tickets priced accordingly), not unlike the Beastie Boys’ recent instrumental shows, with fans being asked to dress up and walk a red carpet. But if all the pomp is for a celebration or memorial is still to be seen.

Nov. 1-13, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. (betw. Broadway & 8th Ave.), 212- 239-6200; 8, $76.50-$151.50.

Courtesy NY Press