Duran Duran, July 13, at the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena: First things first. How was Duran Duran's recent performance in New Orleans? Fine. Actually, a lot of fun, and it was pretty much what you'd expect it to be.
Time passing was a theme at the show, with one of the T-shirts sold at the merch table simply bearing the date 1978 -- the year the band formed. When Simon Le Bon donned the shirt for the encore, it was his only fashion faux pas of the night as it was short enough to let a little middle-aged belly poke out the bottom, but the women who loved the band during its heyday didn't seem to mind. He also tried to recreate the slow-mo leap toward the front of the stage that seemed so exciting in the video for "The Reflex," but a number of fine meals in French restaurants later, it was more run than jump and the effect was a bit muted.
Over the band's nearly 30 year career, it has played to a number of different audiences -- punks in the early days, "new romantic" scenesters when the first album came out, then a younger, more mainstream crowd during their MTV years. Now, some of all those groups show up, along with far more people too young to have heard any of the band's music the first time around. At the Lakefront Arena, they saw a band that was probably better than ever, and certainly one that is more experienced, soberer and probably less cynical than it once was.
As a result, the hits sounded authoritative and moved the crowd. "Union of the Snake" plodded a bit early in the set, but they seemed to throw themselves into "Careless Memory" late in the set with startling abandon. There were also a few surprises, particularly working snippets of "Groove is in the Heart" and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" into songs, but for the most part, Duran Duran gave the people the hits they came for, with an obligatory visiting of the new Astronaut album, which is fine but not memorable. The biggest surprise for people who haven't thought about Duran Duran in a while is just how many hits the band has. The show ended with "The Reflex" or "Is There Something I Should Know" notable in their absence.
The one sad note was that Andy Taylor has still not figured out hair after all these years. During the early days, he sported an ultra-mullet that thankfully he has left behind. He has replaced it with a scruffy shag and sunglasses that made him look a bit like Mick Mars -- the least shaggable member of Motley Crüe. Some people never learn.
The White Stripes -- Get Behind Me Satan (V2): Replace "Satan" with "temptation" and you understand Get Behind Me Satan. This isn't an unreasonable substitution, and the apple in Meg White's hand on the cover and disc reinforces the Eve and Eden association. Lyrically, the album is a suite of songs about the consequences of giving in to temptation, and as you might expect, the mood isn't pretty. In a text piece in the liner notes, Jack White writes, "to give is true and admirable ..., but to be taken from is loss and totally false. Imagine that you are being taken from. What faith is tested? What hope is wuthering?"
Fortunately, White doesn't collapse into self-pity or morose hostility. The bleakness manifests itself in tentative, conditional phrases in the most musically expansive songs the White Stripes have committed to shiny metal. In the bouncy, bluegrass-like "Little Ghost," he is even hitting on the spectral hoping she can "scare me up a little piece of love."
As dark as Get Behind Me Satan is, it's also the White Stripes at their most ambitious as the trademark guitar and drums duo center many songs on the piano -- played as sparely as White plays guitar -- and "The Nurse" prominently features a marimba. "Instant Blues," though, is the band at its most primal, grinding out Led Zep-style blues. The songs bounce and rock, avoiding the greatest pitfall of people singing sad songs: It's one thing to sing about sad situations, but it's another to bum everybody out.
Fountains of Wayne -- Out-of-State Plates (Virgin/EMI): This two-disc set is an eccentric career move, following the success of 2003's Welcome Interstate Managers with an odds-and-ends collection. It doesn't point where the band is going -- if that matters -- but it does show those who discovered Fountains of Wayne with "Stacy's Mom" that it has been a good enough power-pop band to throw away and relegate to "bonus track" status a lot of entertaining songs. A number of tracks are barely completed demos, and there are obviously lightweight tracks that the world would spin just fine without their existence. Still, the songwriting is self-consciously clever, but not obnoxiously so. Instead, almost every one delivers a smart or witty turn of phrase that is as much about the song or its subject as it is about pop music itself. The chorus repeats the phrase "Lay it down," recalling the phrase from the Band's "The Weight." In this case, though, the song is "Karpet King," and singer Chris Collingswood is encouraging a weary carpet layer to persevere in his job.
As songs like that suggest, the band members are students of pop, and Out-of-State Plates hints at the breadth of Fountain of Wayne's influences. It includes a luminous cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-penned "Trains and Boats and Planes" and a live version of Electric Light Orchestra's "I Can't Get it Out of My Head." They do an acoustic version of Britney Spears' "Oops ... I Did It Again," a song that has also been covered by Richard Thompson and Sex Mob, suggesting it's far more durable and well-constructed than Britney snobs would like to believe. Their influences are not all so mainstream; in the liner notes, Collingswood writes, "Someday I'll have an Aztec Camera tribute band" to accompany a version of the Scottish band's "Killingsworth Street."
Personally, none of that mattered. Collingswood won me over when he wrote -- apropos of nothing -- "You know who sucked? Faith No More." When you're right, you're right.
James Blood Ulmer -- Birthright (Hyena): This album is the most satisfying of James Blood Ulmer's recent exploration of traditional blues. The Mississippi Delta has always been central to his musical vocabulary, but as with Ornette Coleman, it wasn't always recognizable in a harmelodic jazz context. On 2003's Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, he sounded straightjacketed playing conventional blues, but on Birthright, he performs solo and gives himself permission to indulge the full range of his musical impulses.
On "Where Did All the Girls Come From?" that means sketching out a I-IV-V chord progression on his guitar in a tuning that allows the middle strings to drone and the bass notes to move almost imperceptibly under the vocal. High notes sound like a shower of sparks sprayed out between verses.
Just as there's a privacy to the musical logic of Ulmer's tuning and playing, his vocals are often a mumble, giving doubters reason to wonder if he's feeling the blues or just imitating them. There's a quiet sincerity to his performances that suggests his vocals are what they are because Ulmer thinks of the blues as a private meditation more than a shared, cathartic experience. Thought of in those terms, Birthright is his most effective exploration of the blues in years.