Van Duren: Idiot Optimism

Rare 1970s Memphis pop-rock follow-up

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 and reissued Duren’s debut, Are You Serious?, alongside this even rarer second album. Idiot Optimism was recorded shortly after the debut, but disagreements with the label led to it being shelved. The album appeared briefly on the Japanese Air Mail label in 1999, and again in 2003 on Terry Manning’s Lucky Seven imprint, but this is the first issue in which Duren’s been involved, and remastered from the original analog tapes, with liner notes by Duren and a previously unpublished cover photo, this is the album’s definitive rendering.

Unlike Duren’s multi-instrumentalist performance on his debut, here he engages a band. Also unlike the debut, the well of material was mostly newer, many songs having been written during the time between the debut album’s recording and its release. Duren also included the only cover he’d recorded to that point – Chris Bell’s “Make a Scene” – as well as a song he co-wrote with Jody Stephens in 1975, “Andy, Please.” He also leaned more heaviy into mid- and up-tempo numbers, having found that ballads didn’t work as well on stage, with the fetching “What’s Keeping You?” being the only piano ballad included on the album.

Jon Tiven returned to co-produce, but after a falling out with the label, Duren was left to produce most of the album with help from engineer Richard Robinson. Oddly, the record label had forsaken vinyl LPs for cassette tapes, which allowed the album to stretch out to fifteen tracks. Musically, Duren’s songs have many of the musical hallmarks of those on his debut, but the players rock a bit more freely than Duren had as a multi-instrumentalist. Tom MacGregor rips on lead guitar for “Convincing Convictions,” and Hilly Michaels opens “Torn in Half” with an inventive drum pattern alongside Jeff Batter’s synthesizer.

Duren finished mixing the album before splitting with Big Sound, but the label did a poor job of mastering, and the previous Air Mail and Lucky Seven releases used the label’s inferior master. Omnivore has returned to the original analog tapes with a new transfer by Adam Hill, and a new master by Michael Graves. Those new to Duren’s catalog will want to pick this up alongside the debut, and fans who previously picked up the earlier issues of this title will want to upgrade! [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Van Duren’s Bandcamp Page

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