The new-wave survivors get their sexy back. But at what price did they get it?
Here's the good news. Red Carpet Massacre is one of Duran Duran's best collections of songs. Here's the bad news. It's not really a Duran Duran album at all.
How so, you ask? The story is not an atypical one for a 30-year-old band trying to regain commercial momentum and cultural significance. Following the mediocre performance of the likable but largely undistinguished 2004 comeback album Astronaut, the band felt both internal and external pressure to produce a more successful follow-up. They recorded with producer Michael Patterson, who had worked with Beck and Notorious B.I.G. among others, readying an album for 2006 release. But the label rejected that album, tentatively called Reportage, allegedly due to too much political content and too few potential hits.
Duran Duran quickly regrouped and entered the studio with super-producer Timbaland and his protégé Nate "Danja" Hills. Self-confessed Duran Duran fan and acquaintance Justin Timberlake also collaborated on a few tracks. Sensing a sellout in the works, guitarist Andy Taylor abruptly left the band, something he had also done in 1986 for similar reasons. The Reportage sessions were scrapped. Red Carpet Massacre was born.
It's not uncommon for artists, late in their careers; to hand the musical reins over to veteran producers with a knack for finding the charts and lending credibility. Most people didn't have a problem with Cher turning to Todd Terry and Junior Vasquez, Madonna looking to William Orbit and Stuart Price, or Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond hooking up with Rick Rubin. So why chastise Duran Duran for working with a couple guys who could potentially update their sound and revitalize their career? Well, because Duran Duran are a band, not a solo artist. And, on Red Carpet Massacre they cease to be a band and instead turn into sidemen on their own album.
Of course, the notable exception is singer Simon LeBon, whose voice will never be mistaken for anyone else's. LeBon sounds better than ever, and thank God, because he's about the only element that links Red Carpet Massacre to Duran Duran. Nick Rhodes lends some of his atmospheric, sometimes quirky synthesizers to the album, but Red Carpet Massacre suffers from a serious brevity of Taylors. Nominally, two are still left in the band. And Danja and Timbaland have no excuse for neutering what was the biggest musical strength of the classic Duran Duran lineup, the rhythm section. Yet, by their own admission, bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor are often completely absent from the music. John Taylor is left to do some pop bass on opener "The Valley" and here'n'there stuff on several other tracks. Roger Taylor, though, tragically, is pretty much AWOL, replaced by Timbaland and Danja's trademark hissing, stuttering, electronic hip-hop rhythms. The real Roger's aggressive, syncopated kick drum is evident on only the otherwise mediocre "Dirty Great Monster". On the "Save a Prayer"-type ballad "Box Full O'Honey", you can almost hear him trying to escape from his electronic cage.
The frustrating part is that Red Carpet Massacre is actually a pretty good album. Were the songs lousy, it would be easy cry "disaster" and dismiss it out of hand. But "The Valley" and the title track capture much of the grandeur and grime of Duran Duran's best '80s work. Timberlake proves a respectful and respectable collaborator. His co-write/co-production "Nite-Runner" sleazes and slinks like Danja's other clients Britney Spears and Nelly Furtado only wish they could. Single "Falling Down", which Timberlake co-wrote and also produced, is an archetypically reflective, midtempo Duran Duran pop song. It's also among the most effortlessly catchy songs you'll hear in the next twelve months. Timbaland's vocals on "Skin Divers" only enhance the song's funky groove, while the relatively straightforward "She's Too Much" and "Last Man Standing" dial down the sexuality in favor of earnestness. The strength of the songs only reinforces the knowledge that the heavy-handed, radio-friendly production isn't necessary.
If you're a Duran Duran fan, the degree to which you enjoy Red Carpet Massacre might depend on the extent to which you're able to accept it's really more of a studio concoction than the sound of a band making an album. Curious Timberlake fans might well just start dancing. The irony is Duran Duran have never been shy about embracing the artifice within their art, even going so far as to call one album Pop Trash. The catch is that in the past that artifice was mostly of their creation. Despite its being hyped as a "return to their new wave roots", Red Carpet Massacre sounds like a remix of a great Duran Duran album, and for that it's merely good.