The Past Presents the Future
Three Old Dogs and Their New Tricks

I bought seven new CDs this week, and none of them were the work of new artists.

That used to be par for the course for me. I’ve always been more interested in established artists than newer ones. There’s something about experience, about hearing an artist evolve and mature before my ears, that draws me in. I love extensive back catalogs. I love hearing a songwriter’s 15th album and comparing it to his first. New artists, I find, are usually more about the potential than the actual. If I like a debut album, it’s usually because I’m imagining how good the band’s fifth record might sound.

But lately, I’ve been making a conscious effort to try new bands, before they become so buzzed-about that I can’t avoid them. Just this year I’ve bought efforts from Ringo Deathstarr, the Joy Formidable, Cage the Elephant and Telekinesis, all of whom are on their first or second albums. I don’t plan on turning into one of those bleeding-edge critics scouring the clubs so I can say I heard the next big thing first, but so far, trying new bands has been pretty rewarding. (See: Fleet Foxes.)

So it’s unusual for me not to have bought anything this week from a new (or even semi-new) band. Two of the acts I picked up got their start in the early ‘80s, another in the late ‘80s, one in the late ‘70s, and two others in the ‘90s. The most recent band I bought was Panic at the Disco (more on them next week), and they got together in 2004. At least that’s this century.

But I have to admit, it’s interesting for me to hear what these older bands are doing now, and match it up with their earlier work. None of these acts have been around longer than I have (yeah, yeah, shut it), but I grew up with some of them, and discovered others at pivotal points in my life. I’m always going to celebrate the new here at tm3am, but I hope to do it with a healthy respect for what came before. So now, here’s a look at what came before, and what those bands are doing now.

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Every 10 years or so, the entertainment media gets it into their heads that Duran Duran is making a comeback. That, to me, is like saying the cheeseburger is making a comeback. Some years it’s more popular than others, but like Duran Duran, it’s kind of always been there.

Sure, there have been lineup changes galore, but Duran Duran has, solidly and dependably, put out an album every two or three years since 1981. If you’d told me in 1983, at the height of their popularity, that Duran freaking Duran would go on to have a 30-year recording career, I’d have… well, I’d have probably looked at you funny for a second, and then gone back to playing with my Legos, because I was nine. But the point remains. Nobody expected the “Rio” band to keep on plugging for this long, and absolutely no one expected them to be as good as they are.

It would be very difficult for me to name a bad Duran Duran album. Some are worse than others – Notorious and Liberty pop to mind – but none of them out-and-out suck. Duran Duran specialize in dramatic, synth-y pop, and with minor stylistic variations along the way, they’ve stuck to that for three decades. Occasionally the general public catches on again (“Ordinary World” was a hit in 1993, Astronaut cracked the top 20 in 2004), but for the most part, Duran Duran keeps on doing what they do, regardless of who’s paying attention.

That’s why collaborations with Danja and Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre were so surprising. It was the band’s first major bid at mass popularity since their earliest days, and they made it work, but it didn’t spin the gold they hoped it would. So for album 13, All You Need is Now, they’ve gone back to just being who they are. And as much as I liked Red Carpet Massacre, this is the real deal. This is why I love Duran Duran.

All You Need is Now is chock-full of the classic Duran sound. With four-fifths of the original band back in the fold, and a clearly conscious choice to get back to basics, the record pulses along comfortably. Truth be told, anything the band does behind him would sound like Duran Duran with Simon Le Bon’s distinctive vocals on top, but here he gets some grand melodies to sink his teeth into. The title track, “Blame the Machines” and “Being Followed” may be the most self-confident opening triptych this band has delivered in more than a decade.

And honestly, no other band I know would compose a six-minute epic called “The Man Who Stole a Leopard” (literally about a man who stole a leopard), but even if there were one, that band would not also be able to pull off a cheeky stomper like “Too Bad You’re So Beautiful.” As is this band’s custom, the best material appears toward the end: “Mediterranea” is the sky-high ballad this time around, and hidden gems “Other People’s Lives” and “Runway Runaway” are silly yet satisfying home runs. Owen Pallett (of Arcade Fire fame) contributes two instrumental bridges that tie everything together. Just like the Dude’s rug.

I’ve been a Duran Duran fan since the ‘80s, and they’ve never given me reason to regret it. All You Need is Now is another in a long line of thoroughly enjoyable pop records from a band that will remain forever underrated. It has the potential to take off, and you might see some news reports touting Duran’s latest comeback. Don’t believe it. Three decades in, they’re one of the most dependable pop acts out there. They don’t need to come back, they’ve never gone away.

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The Strokes, on the other hand, did go away. Five years ago, they released their third album, First Impressions of Earth. It did very well, they toured it, and then the New York quintet kind of faded out. Every member went on to side projects or solo albums. It was kind of a fizzle. Now, I’ve never been a big fan – if I never hear “Last Nite” again, it will be too soon – but even I was a little mystified at how such a popular band could just drift apart.

As it turns out, they didn’t. The hiatus lasted a couple of years, but the band’s back together now with a new album, called Angles. Although I certainly wouldn’t call this a comeback either. There’s very little on this 10-track disc that makes me miss the Strokes, very little that makes me glad they’re back in my life. The band does make some interesting leaps into new sonic territory, but they retain their sloppiness and their so-so songwriting.

The album actually gets off to a roaring start, with glossy ass-kicker “Machu Picchu.” The twin guitars rage and then fall back as Julian Casablancas dives into a strong chorus. All seems well, but things go south pretty quickly after that. The slovenly “Under Cover of Darkness” is everything I dislike about this band. Casablancas sounds like he’s whining through a telephone, and the chorus attempts to soar, but ends up spluttering.

And from there, it’s one bout with mediocrity after another. “Two Kinds of Happiness” sounds like they went back in time to 1984 and got Ric Ocasek to produce, but the song is shaky and half-formed. I like “You’re So Right” for being so damn weird – the electronic rhythm and angular guitars underpin three or four Casablancases, through robot effects, intoning in something that might be called harmony. It’s unlike anything the Strokes have done. That doesn’t mean it’s particularly good, though.

“Taken For a Fool” is my favorite. It has a nice melody, some stunning playing by Albert Hammond Jr., and an overall super-cool vibe. But it highlights what I like least about the Strokes: they’re a fine, tight band pretending to sound bored and sloppy. The five songs in the back half don’t hold much for me. The band flirts with the electronics that were all over Casablancas’ solo album, Phrazes for the Young, but they don’t add much to these decent-to-disappointing tunes.

Some will love this album, and wonder why I just can’t hear how good it is. I guess I am just immune to this band’s charms. I have tried, and I have found things to like (such as the insane little breakdowns in “Call Me Back”), but not enough. Angles rarely rises above decent to me, and often sinks far below it. They’ve come a few baby steps from their debut, but it would be hard for me to call what they’ve been on a journey.

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On the other hand entirely, we have the Pet Shop Boys.

This is another band that has surprised me with their longevity. Their first single, “West End Girls,” dropped in 1984, and since then, they’ve reliably released an album every two or three years. Four remix albums, a pair of live documents, and an even 10 studio records make up their catalog, and every one of them is a synth-pop gem. They’ve stumbled a bit recently – 2006’s Fundamental and 2009’s Yes are not all they could have been – but Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe remain singular figures in the pop landscape, wise old men who still cover the Village People’s “Go West” in concert.

But even as a longtime Pet Shop Boys fan, I would not have believed they would ever turn out something quite like The Most Incredible Thing, their score to a new ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story. Anyone who doubts that Tennant and Lowe are first-rate musicians and composers should listen to this thing. It is almost entirely instrumental, and offers the Boys their first chance to work with a full orchestra since 1988’s “Left to My Own Devices.” They seize it.

The story is typically Anderson. The king of a large yet boring kingdom offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever can show him “the most incredible thing.” An artist named Leo decides to create a clock full of magical creatures, and he handily wins the contest, but a group of bullies step in and destroy the clock. This destruction is somehow considered the most incredible thing, and the head bully, a guy named Karl, is declared the winner.

But then, on the eve of Karl’s wedding to the princess, the magical creatures from the clock come back to life and kill him. Leo and the princess then fall in love and get married, their love declared the most incredible thing. Yeah, it’s weird, but you can just picture this happening on stage, right?

The one drawback of the two-disc soundtrack album is that you have to keep on imagining that. You get just the music – no DVD of the performance, not even any photographs. I assume this would all be more amazing as a complete work, watching the visual element while hearing the Boys’ astounding music. But thankfully, the music itself is good enough that you won’t care that much. Throughout, Tennant and Lowe marry their trademark synth pulses and dance beats to the massive sound of an orchestra and a choir, and the effect is intense.

But it’s when the Boys shake things up that the score really comes to life. “Help Me,” midway through the first act, is a tender piano piece, and the multi-part “The Clock,” which opens the second act, is a fantastic wonderland of sweeping string melodies and sound effects. “The Miracle,” the extraordinary centerpiece of Act Three, is this score’s finest hour, utilizing themes that had been stated earlier to tremendous effect. It all builds up into an explosion of joyous sound.

This is the second instrumental score Tennant and Lowe have released, after their 2005 music for Battleship Potemkin, but this leaves the earlier effort in the dust. If all you know of the Pet Shop Boys is “West End Girls” and “It’s a Sin,” check this out. They’ve truly earned the title “composers” with this one, and as much as I want them to release another winning collection of pop tunes, I wouldn’t be sad if they followed this orchestral path a while longer, either. The Most Incredible Thing is an unexpected triumph.

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Next week, it’s back to the modern times with the Joy Formidable, Broken Bells, Panic at the Disco and Peter, Bjorn and John, along with my First Quarter Report. Shortly after that, the amazing new Violet Burning triple album, and some more old guys: Ray Davies, Robbie Robertson and the Smithereens.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.