Van Duren – Idiot Optimism (Omnivore Recordings)
His sophomore album gets its first official release
Van Duren’s debut album, Are You Serious? garnered enough critical acclaim and radio airplay in the late Seventies for his then-label to ask for a followup. In many ways, things were different this time around. For one, Duren played just about everything but drums on his debut. For Idiot Optimism, he enlists an actual band, and the results are more cohesive, especially with the rhythm section. Also, there was a concerted effort to rock more – some of the ballads on the first LP hadn’t gone over well in the live setting.
The album opens with the excellent “Bear With Me All the Way,” which features some fine, hi hat-led drumming by Mickey Curry, and great interplay between the two guitarists, Tom MacGregor and Freddie Tane. That’s followed by the Chris Bell song, “Make a Scene.” While Bell was certainly a genius, this rendition is superior – Steve Buslowe’s bass is all over the place, the drums meaty and Duren’s vocals are raw (dig those groovy keyboards near the end too!).
“Tennessee, I’m Trying” is a mid tempo number that deals with homesickness, while “Convincing Convictions” is another example of Duren showing off his rock vocal skills. “That” has a funk feel, somewhat Steely Dan-esque to it, and the band is up to the task. Duren didn’t write too many sing a long choruses, but “Life in Layers” is an exception.
Sonically, this album sounds great, although songs like “Torn in Half” and “Hand Over Hand” do have keyboards that certain date the music. Duren revisits “Andy, Please,” a track he co-wrote and recorded with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens several years earlier. This version is decent, it just doesn’t live up to the original, which is thankfully available on the Waiting soundtrack.
The album drags a little near the end – “Woman Needs Man Needs Woman” and “Reminds Me of Me” try too hard to rock and could use a little more melody, while “Mabel (I’m Amazed),” despite its clever title, kinda plods along. The album redeems at the end for the medley of “Love at the Heart of it/Mad at the Moon.” Honestly, chop of few of these off and this would’ve made a great single LP.
Any momentum that Duren had was derailed when his label demanded that he take out a loan to cover promotion and pressing of the album (hmmm…isn’t that what a label is for???). Instead of agreeing to those terms, Duren walked, leaving these fine recordings sitting on the shelf for years (Idiot Optimism did get a semi-official release in 1999 on a Japanese label, but this version has superior sound).
I think Are You Serious? is the better album (I, for one, enjoy the ballads on that one mixed in the with rockers). That being said, Idiot Optimism still has plenty of great songs to recommend to any fan of melodic rock n’ roll. –Tony Peters