If awards were handed out for foresight, Birmingham’s Stephen Duffy would not likely be considered for one. At the turn of the decade, he parted company with a trendy young new romantic band, saying they were just too reliant on synthesizers for his taste. Never mind that his own subsequent work for a time included plenty of electronics; the band he left was Duran Duran. In time, and after much exploration, Duffy would find his true calling in English folk pop, attracting a following devoted to his songcraft and organic, harmony-rich arrangements.
Duffy eventually got his own career off the ground as Tin Tin, scoring dance hits with “Kiss Me,” “Icing on the Cake” and “Hold It,” well-crafted but now-dated chirpy synth-pop ditties of the sort that were hard to ignore but harder to truly embrace. “Kiss Me” was re-released several times and (two years later) included on The Ups and Downs, Duffy’s long-delayed solo debut.
Because We Love You drops the Tin Tin tag and much of the electronic orchestration in favor of generic pop/rock/soul from the Wham!/Spandau Ballet school. Using such ingenious titles as “I Love You,” “Love Station” and “Unkiss That Kiss,” almost every track is a predictable mélange of horns and standard bass/drums patterns, topped with Duffy’s wimpy, emotionless voice. He can write good hooks, but neither of these albums offers anything novel or enduring.
Abandoning his solo career and discarding the Tin Tin moniker, Duffy formed Lilac Time with his brother Nick and a rhythm section and found a stronger creative footing. Although the group’s idiom is rustic folk-pop rather than catchy dance music, the unfailingly delightful Lilac Time displays the same perfectionist craftsmanship Duffy brought to his solo work. This unprepossessing gem consists of jaunty love songs, small-town contemplations and skeptical bits of philosophy brought to life with simple delicacy on acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano, harmonica and beautiful harmonies. (The two CD bonus tracks are “Railway Bazaar” and the elegiac “Gone for a Burton,” about the late actor.)
A country-western influence complicates Duffy’s romantic songwriting on Paradise Circus, an attractive but less glorious album that fits the same folky instrumentation (plus accordion) into fuller, smoother arrangements with horn and string accents. Highlights are “American Eyes,” “If the Stars Shine Tonight” and “The Girl Who Waves at Trains.”
Half-produced by Andy Partridge (Duffy collaborated with John Leckie on the rest), & Love for All brings XTC’s involuted art-rock arranging style to bear on Duffy’s far less intricate tunes. Although electrifying the Lilac Time (the LP uses plenty of piano played by Billy Bragg sidewoman Cara Tivey and acoustic guitar, but Partridge’s tracks rock at about the same level as Skylarking) is an iffy proposition, songs like “Fields,” the nostalgic “All for Love & Love for All” (which incorporates the Beatles in both lyrics and music), “The Laundry” and the brilliant “It’ll End in Tears (I Won’t Cry)” work out fine. But that leaves the less dynamic performances sounding flat. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Compendium: The Fontana Trinity is an anthology of the first three Lilac Time albums, along with B-sides, alternate versions and unreleased tracks. It has also become the only in-print means of hearing tracks from the first two records.
The pleasant but disjointed Astronauts starts off winningly enough. The first two tracks return the group to the semi-simplicity of Paradise Circus. After that, though, the momentum comes and goes. The weak numbers flout their flaws: “A Taste for Honey” relies on an unoriginal metaphor, and “Dreaming” plops an inorganic, ’80s new wave clunker in the middle of an album that’s otherwise all folk- pop. There’s a healthy portion of Lilac loveliness, but the ambivalence between being a Lilac Time album or a Duffy solo project is injurious.
The group lost: Duffy released his next three projects under his own name. Music in Colours features the single “Natalie” and significant contributions, for better or worse, from violinist Nigel Kennedy.
Minus his given name, Duffy steers our intrepid hero into ’90s Britpop territory, aided helpfully by three Americans: Velvet Crush drummer Ric Menck and bassist Paul Chastain and producer/guitarist Mitch Easter. (All four had just collaborated on VC’s Teenage Symphonies to God.) The fine album jumps from the start, with the snarling guitars and throbbing bass and drums of “London Girls.” Duffy couldn’t ask for a rhythm section better suited to the task, and his own unquenchable English-ness keeps the record from sounding like an Amerindie retread. The only blemish here, “Ghetto Child,” would be less objectionable without its gaudy female madrigal vocals.
Veering back to the Lilac sound (but not name), Duffy emerges rose-scented on I Love My Friends, a delight from beginning to end. The faux-radio career recap “Tune In” draws listeners into Duffy’s realm, and the rest of the album maintains that intimacy without resorting to maudlin button-pushing. Musically, the disc assimilates a decade’s worth of exploration, starting off with Duffy‘s power pop before settling into Lilac folk pop and then alternating the two styles from there. Duffy and Stephen Street did the bulk of the production, with two seamless contributions from Andy Partridge. The lyrical introspection climaxes with “The Postcard,” a harrowing, focused snapshot of regret. Despite its occasional darkness, I Love My Friends ultimately emits the aura of a contented man who, indeed, loves his friends. Highly recommended.
After an eight-year hiatus, the Lilac Time returned with Looking for a Day in the Night. The subtitle “Lilac 5. A walk down the avenues doing all the things we used to do …” paraphrases the lyrics of “A Dream That We All Share,” a standout among standouts. Stylistically, the group has settled into what can only be called English country: full of banjos, shuffling acoustic guitars and brushed drums (from Lilac lifer Michael Giri), lots of pedal steel guitar from Melvin Duffy (no relation) with a relentless pop sense and mouth-watering backing vocals from Claire Worrall. The songwriting is unimpeachable, with verses, choruses and bridges that all deliver knockout hooks. The album also makes the best use yet of Duffy’s fascination with the Apollo space program, an expression dating back to & Love for All. Brother Nick Duffy, credited with “instrumentation,” penned two excellent instrumentals, one of which, “The Spirit Moves,” provides the album’s elegant, bucolic denouement. It all adds up to a second- phase launch just as magical as (and smarter than) the original, self-titled debut.
On Lilac 6, subtitled “beautiful despair and other folktales,” the group is officially a trio of brothers Stephen and Nick along with Worrall. Giri is gone, but Melvin Duffy remains a frequent welcome guest. Though largely of a piece with Looking for a Day in the Night, this album offers a more consistently robust sound. The first two tracks come closest to the stark, solo- acoustic numbers Duffy has sprinkled on all his albums, but here they’re brightened with pedal steel and drums. Three members of Barenaked Ladies provide vocal support on at least two tracks, another pleasant textural touch. Duffy’s songwriting remains spot-on, as do brother Nick’s instrumentals, resulting in another ace exhibition of English country/folk-pop.
Keep Going, credited to Stephen Duffy & the Lilac Time, combines band material with solo acoustic cuts. It’s more laid back than its immediate predecessor, and thankfully avoids the multiple personalities of Astronauts. All three Duffys and Worrall remain on board, which is good news. The bad news is the songs aren’t universally excellent. A couple could use some oomph, and overall, the disc lacks the sparkle of previous efforts. That said, the good songs outnumber the bad. “Don’t Feed the Rats,” “The Silence” and the bleak twins “So Far Away” and “Already Gone” are among the highlights. Duffy may be in a rut, but Keep Going confirms that, under any name, his albums are always worth hearing.