The Cherry Lipstick Album Reviews: Red Carpet Massacre
The Valley *****
Red Carpet Massacre **
Falling Down ****
Box Full O’ Honey ****
Skin Divers *****
Tricked Out ****
Zoom In **
She's Too Much ****
Dirty Great Monster ***
Last Man Standing **
"By the time we have finished an album it almost feels like, wow ....there's a book in there." JT
With Red Carpet Massacre this is certainly the case. Those anticipating Simon's memoirs need to take a close look at the chapter he wrote and released in 2007 - it's one intriguing read.
For many fans, this album is a massacre of entirely different proportions. As JT put it, "It's as if Duran Duran has just been taken and surrounded by chrome." Despite big label / big producer presence, it is trumped only by Pop Trash as their poorest performing album commercially.
Cue mass fan exodus! Duranies were left bereft following Andy’s second departure. More injurious again was the shelving by Sony of the much anticipated (and allegedly near completed) 14 track album "Reportage", which Roger had promised was "a homage to our roots as a band, more direct and a return to our dance and 'new wave' origins."
What rather rapidly (in Duran time) replaced it was an album which arguably sounded more like a surrogate Timbaland / R&B record with Simon on guest vocals and three spare Durans. Cognisant of the dwindling momentum post-reunion, Sony saw a narrow window to recoup their investment, band brand be dammed. So, with Timbaland and Nate Hills cracking the whip, the typical production cycle was reduced from 2+ years to 8 months. Nate was reportedly charging $50-100k per track back in the day so that's ummm... potentially $1.2 million ... needless to say there were no 70 versions of Dancephobia here: the original tracks were largely those that made the cut. Initial band enthusiasm has yielded to blunt honesty and perspective over time:
"The whole project was a fucking nightmare. We delivered an album (Reportage) to Sony that was a natural-sounding, almost rock album and they were like, 'We need something a bit pop, do you fancy doing a couple of tracks with Timbaland?" JT
John’s statement is at odds with Roger’s on the content of this unreleased album, which has naturally been adorned with redemptive and ethereal status by diehards who have yet to hear a single track. One suspects that Reportage has almost certainly been relegated to the posthumous release file, when the bitter feuds of this chapter in the band’s legacy have died with the main characters. [John may recently have floated the notion of a 2018 release, but this will have to counter Sony and Andy’s lawyers].
The reactionary Duran kick against a poorly-received album has consigned RCM to the doghouse for several years. But now it is time for some re-evaluation and appreciation. The lyricism hasn't been eclipsed on any album since - rich, soulful, cryptic and intimate. Rhythmically, it stretches its silk stockinged legs, with soaring heartfelt choruses, inventive modern soundscapes. New avenues were musically explored on tour with the electro set. There's a lot worthy of your considered renewed attention.
On this Broadway themed production, the curtains open to a visually assaulting cover. Titillation meets tokenism - the police tape and censorship bar do nothing to obscure the view, or veil our voyeuristic pleasure as a stilettoed shoe rests on a barely covered breast.
“We wanted a bit of black humour in it.... and sex and glamour.” John Taylor
More sexual than threatening in imagery, the album cover and title took a satirical swipe at our media machine, programmed to incite continual public outrage, yet where the greatest of human atrocities receive the same attention as celebrity dramas.
"The planet is in distress and all of the attention is on Paris Hilton." Al Gore
Do those grainy video stills and covered eyes mask pleasure or pain? The answer lies within... RCM is the most intimate and arguably autobiographical account of a life defined by the paradox of courting fame and exposure with the associated glare of public intrusion. It might not be Patrick Nagel, but it is unquestionably their most powerful album cover, effectively showcasing the journey for the listener within.
“Lyrically this album has got some depth to it ...I mean there’s some very important issues for me and to get to that you do have to dig, and to dig you do have to experience a certain amount of pain and its insecurity because you're always wondering if what you've got inside you is good enough.” SLB
The Valley immediately launches into a hot pursuit, pantingly racing along. The continual instrumental changes are like a multitude of shadows or memories threatening to consume their owner. It might appear to be a dance track, but there are elements of early DD in all performances here: guitar, drums, bass and synths. To fully appreciate its energy, watch it live. Lyrically it expands on the well traversed theme of life as a river. Through busy periods "cities" and obstacles "towers" how time drags when there's worry, turning minutes into hours, and yet there's not enough time to stretch for treasured moments.
The styling and music meet most logically in the title track, for a punk infused number, musically mirroring Jeffrey Bryant's seductive military punk chic styling of the band. Great percussion, though the synths to these ears resonate like a child's toy that need the batteries replaced. Vocally, punk is not Simon's forte (which explains why we have Duran Duran and not Dog Days) and he struggles to be heard over the melody. There is something of a disservice to his incisive social commentary in the vocal tone of the song which just feels, well, pretty vacant!
In Nite-Runner, Justin Timberlake deviates very little from the formula that brought him Sexyback success. It's his track despite not being able to distinguish him vocally from Simon. The rhythm is seductive, albeit repetitive, and melodically it suffers the same fate. Perhaps a logical single with its patronage, but very devoid of Duran DNA.
The delicate instrumentation on Falling Down sits gently on top of a syncopated drumbeat, bestowing classic pop sensibilities to this heartfelt ballad. Simon beseechingly questions the gods, pleading and longing for solace in the beautifully harmonious pre-chorus, but the song is somewhat let down by a weaker chorus and a drowned-out Justin. Private downfalls in the public eye are subject matter once more, the corrosion of self as life falls apart. It needs a key change or a bit of distortion towards the end, the guitar solo lacks a bit of momentum.
Box Full O’ Honey captures the deep complexity of the human heart. Intrusively intimate, one suspects it's about Yasmin's depression (which she had publicly spoken about) - this shared existence is his penance for failing her, yet she has the upper hand in owning that emotion, as she mocks him for placing her on such a pedestal. However, she too has made him king and servant. When drums and bass kick in it’s just sublime, though the musical production for such a "tumbledown" theme is a little over polished.
Skin Divers has been described by JT as "The song that best captures the essence of Timbaland meets Duran Duran." Certainly, Timbaland left his mark, with the customary "baby girls", and "freaky freaky freakys". It's the marmite of RCM, and this writer loves it. Unusually, JT carries the melody and it is Nick who defines the structure of the song with shifting background soundscapes. This cryptic song dissects self-renewal and emotional healing through sex, depicted as more than a tawdry physical escape at the end of an online search. Yet still there is the notion of shutting out the hoi polloi. Traditionally, a skin dive is a swim without a protective shield of a wetsuit, something of exposure of the insular world buried in its title. It doesn't climax as a song with the trademark middle eight - musically it is steadfast in emphasising intimacy rather than ecstasy.
Sonically and thematically, Tempted reverberates in one’s spine penetrating through nightclub floors and strangers’ headphones. The song explores the primal sensation of arousal through music and sexual expression through dance, perfectly realised here melodically and lyrically. Focused and purposeful in rhythm (excepting a weaker middle eight) Nick keeps our interest with shifting sonic islands. One of their finest proper club tracks.
Depending on your point of view Tricked Out is either an incohesive mess or a platform for each band member to showcase their contributions. Elements of a speeded-up Chauffeur here, particularly when the harpsichord sound breaks in. Creatively Nick owns this accomplished piece but refreshingly Dom breaks free of his shackles here too, without dominating the show.
Zoom In, despite an uninspiring repetitive melody, is redeemed in part by Simon's vocal delivery. The tonal changes between speech and song, predatory and leering to observational detachment, is something of a Bryan Ferry influence to these ears. Again it revisits the theme of personal demise in the public eye, and arguably the false personas we portray to the world, where the real person hides behind the avatar.
She's Too Much is apparently about Saffron Le Bon. It portrays a father struggling to equip his child with survival skills for life by allowing her to flounder, suffer and learn. Ironically this is truly to protect her, softened only by his efforts to share in her pain and personal growth. With intimate guitar and drums, the tenderness in his voice is set against a more upbeat rhythm and synth section to great effect. Ostensibly a pop song, you can also hear an acoustic sing within the track.
Predatory with theatrical swagger the Bowie-inspired Dirty Great Monster can feel laboured and plodding in parts, but the brass is a great atmospheric addition. An Ask Katy revealed it was about someone close to Simon's extended family.
Last Man Standing feels misplaced as a closing track - despite an interesting lyric it is neither epic nor rousing and lacks the punch of a Broadway finale. It feels largely like the Simon and Nick show. Melodically sterile, the soft percussion and Simon's dulcet tones add some much-needed warmth.
Red Carpet Massacre is not a perfect album but there are many highlights that have been drowned out in its failures. This is an album that has, to a large extent, Simon’s soul laid bare. That's a human life being stripped bare for our entertainment - and ironically that is the very point the album makes.
So, this listener is happy to stand up for it. I'm standing up for my band and my man, flawed as they may be. Red Carpet Massacre is an album that demands admiration rather than adulation. Maybe, as Duran head into the twilight of their career, that's to be expected. And, maybe, that’s what we as fans should accept as part of the overall package of shared history – to admire an album which offers something more lasting and of substance.