Have you ever had an album that you loved so much you didn’t want it to end? You know… “that” recording which you play over and over and over until the music is ingrained into your inner being. This is music made with so much joy you had to hear it as much as possible.
What was the first album like that for you?
Was it The Beatles’ Rubber Soul or Revolver? Was it Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model or Get Happy? Big Star’s #1 Record? Billy Joel’s Turnstiles or The Stranger? ELO’s A New World Record or Eldorado? XTC’s Skylarking or English Settlement? Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand? The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society? The first album by 20/20? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds? Flaming Lips Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi? Emitt Rhodes’ self titled debut for Dunhill records, perhaps?
You get the idea…
I have a long list of albums like that which I keep coming back to, recordings which knock me out every time with a combination of rich melodies and pure voiced singing and heart felt harmonies.
Last year I received a wonderful wake up call about an artist I somehow completely missed even knowing about: Van Duren. You might forgive me, however, as I found out I was not alone on this front. His albums were so obscure in fact that they had become much sought after collectors items with, sealed copies commanding upwards of $100 on sites like Discogs.
In short, Van Duren hails from the tail end of the Big Star universe, so that alone should give you an idea of the quality of this man’s songwriting and singing.
Beyond Big Star, if you like Emitt Rhodes, Badfinger, early Billy Joel, Andrew Gold, The Flames (produced by The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson), Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Pugwash, Jules Shear, Todd Rundgren, XTC and of course the Paul McCartney side of The Beatles you’ll probably fall in love with Van Duren’s music. If you ever wondered what Emitt Rhodes might have sounded like had he kept recording into the late 70s, this might give you an idea.
Last year, Omnivore Recordings released the soundtrack to a new documentary about him (which I’ve still yet to see!). I reviewed both the soundtrack on CD and Vinyl, stories you should read as it helps to put this wonderful once-lost music in perspective (click here for part 1 and part 2).
This year, Van Duren’s debut album, Are You Serious?, makes its CD premier alongside a long overdue vinyl LP reissue (again, thanks to Omnivore Recordings) remastered from the original analog master tapes. I’ve been listening to this album a lot lately and it feels like an old friend even though it is still brand new to me. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Van Duren’s music but are curious, I’ll try to paint some parallel’s with words for a moment.
This sweet sounding gem includes the brilliant power ballad “Waiting” which feels like what might have happened had Billy Joel’s second album had been produced by Todd Rundgren. The album opening rocker “Chemical Fire”followed by “The Love Inside” which feels like a lost Emitt Rhodes sequence. “Grow Yourself Up” is an epic pop rocker that feels like the love child of Todd’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” with a sweet bridge this side of Elton John’s “Holiday Inn.”
The point is, Van Duren’s compositions are crafted at a very high level…
The standard black vinyl edition of Are You Serious? generally sounds real good and appropriately feeling like a late 1970s recording (which is good — it doesn’t feel unnaturally bright). The album is quiet and without warps. Unfortunately, my copy has one side that is quite off center which is problematic for me as it makes the music waver in and out of tune. In good faith because I like this music that much — and wanting to support this independent artist who has never really gotten his due — I went ahead and ordered the deluxe edition colored vinyl versions of the album from Omnivore which I hope will be more stable pressings than this version I received for review.
His second album, Idiot Optimism, has been issued here for the first time under his guidance (again, mastered from the original analog tapes). Even from the condensed liner notes I can tell this has a rich backstory worthy of a docu-drama — hand-to-mouth living, a loving girlfriend muse, scientologist take over of the record company! Its all there.
The album didn’t get released in 1979 and 20 years later it showed up on CD in Japan. This new edition from Omnivore is the first time it has been on vinyl and the first time the album was issued as the artist intended. A two LP set, you can hear how this music might have fit on rock radio of the late 70s.
This album includes a wonderful cover of Chris Bell’s “Make A Scene.” Another stand out track is the dramatic ballad “What’s Keeping You?” I suspect that “Torn In Half” would have been a likely target for a single release, with its pulsing rhythm-riffs and Wings-on-speed synthesizer solos. The humor of the title “Mabel (I’m Amazed)” isn’t lost on this old school McCartney fan (yet the song itself feels more Todd-inspired with tasty Badfinger flourishes).
The compelling liner notes to the reissues by Mr. Van Duren himself leads some questions as to why his debut album didn’t become a smash hit? It apparently got quite a bit of airplay back in the day (that said, I don’t remember hearing it on WNEW, the station I listened to most back around that time). Yet… like the Big Star albums it disappeared with nary a trace. I suspect that in those pre-internet days, distribution was king and if the albums weren’t in the stores when the airplay happened the chances for it catching on were slim without ongoing radio promotion. The music industry is a fragile food chain in the truest sense.
Anyhow, remember that question I posed at the beginning about never wanting and album to end? For me, Van Duren’s music fits right into that universe.
Van Duren is happily still alive and well and living in Memphis. He’s released a number of albums over the years, so I know that I need to check these out soon.
While many of us never got the message about Van Duren back in the day, I’m really glad we’re able to catch up today. Better late than never.