Van Duren: Are You Serious?

Long-lost 1970s Memphis pop-rock classic

The 1970s Memphis rock scene was fertile but largely ignored in its time. Big Star rose to influence and renown only decades after they failed to make a commercial impression and disbanded. Others on the scene – Icewater, Rock City, the Hot Dogs, Cargoe, Zuider Zee – caught varying degrees of reflected post-mortem Big Star spotlight on compilations and reissues, but Van Duren, who recorded one of the city’s best ‘70s rock albums, remained obscure. This 1978 release, originally on the short-lived Big Sound label, garnered favorable reviews and FM radio play, but has been little known by even those who’ve collected the endless stream of Big Star reissues and vault material, and has been selling for big dollars in secondary markets.

Spurred by the documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story and its accompanying soundtrack, Omnivore’s gone back to the vault to reissue Duren’s debut and second album, Idiot Optimism. While the latter was remastered from the original analog tapes, Omnivore’s used Bob Ludwig’s original master from the 1970s for this CD. The vinyl editions of both albums were freshly remastered by Jeff Powell at Phillips Recording in Memphis. Omnivore’s reissue of Are You Serious? includes the original thirteen tracks, performed by Duren and drummer Hilly Michaels, with help from Doug Snyder and co-producer Jon Tiven. The three tracks anthologized on the soundtrack album expand here into a surprisingly assured album-length statement of a twenty-something who was packing eight years experience as a band leader and songwriter.

Duren’s songs yearn to express his romantic feelings, acknowledging the natural connection of “Chemical Fire,” nervously marking time in “Waiting,” and confessing his innermost hope on “This Love Inside.” There are echoes of the Raspberries on “Oh Babe,” and Badfinger and Todd Rundgren on the angry “Grow Yourself Up.” “Stupid Enough” essays the chagrin of staying too long, and the acoustic closer “The Love That I Love” displays the sort of mood Alex Chilton brought to “Thirteen.”

Duren’s debut burns with the passion felt between the naivete of teen years and the growing cynicism of one’s thirties. He’s articulate, both lyrically and musically, which might seem preternatural if he hadn’t been developing his craft and polishing his songs on stage and in demo sessions for several years. Big Sounds garnered surprisingly broad FM radio play, but it didn’t translate into big sales or chart action, and the album quickly disappeared. Omnivore’s reissue includes an eight-page booklet that features new liners from Duren and previously unpublished period photos. This is a great intro to Van Duren, and a perfect complement to the parallel reissue of his second album. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Van Duren’s Bandcamp Page

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