published: 18 /
Irresistible first album in eight years from still underrated British folk pop outfit, the Lilac Time
Stephen Duffy, despite raising his profile by co-writing and producing an album with Robbie Williams in 2004, has always been surprisingly underrated. In his late teens Duffy founded Duran Duran but departed before the band hit the big time. Duffy then emerged as ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy making catchy synth-pop and even scoring hits with the songs, ‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Icing on the Cake’. But he obviously didn’t feel totally comfortable with that persona so the next phase, after a short, unexpected shift with the experimental house album ‘Designer Beatnik’ released under the name of Dr. Calculus, was a band he formed with his brother Nick and named the Lilac Time.
The band has been through a few line-up changes over the years, although the Duffy brothers have always been at the core of the band; the music that this latest project made was more folk-based and maybe for the first time during his music career Duffy was actually making the music that was closest to his heart. Duffy’s obvious talent for catchy pop tunes have always informed his work, no matter how he framed it, but with the Lilac Time he successfully mixed folk elements with his pop leanings to produce music that was not only instantly appealing but also had more depth than the music he had been associated with up to that point. The band released four albums as the Lilac Time before splitting in 1991 when Stephen Duffy carried on with his solo career.
It was really no big surprise when the band got together again in the late 90s; The Lilac Time, one feels, is where Stephen Duffy can really express his musical vision and despite some outstanding songs littered throughout the albums issued as solo Duffy, yhe Lilac Time albums represent the best of Stephen Duffy.
If the Lilac Time are new to you the best place to start is ‘Compendium, The Fontana Trinity’; 45 songs of breathtaking beauty including ‘American Eyes’, and ‘Return To Yesterday’ where the Lilac Time demonstrate what intelligent pop music is all about. But then as songs such as ‘Postcard’, ‘London Girls’ and ‘Sugar High’ were released on Duffy solo albums the only sure way to appreciate just what an immense talent Stephen Duffy has developed into is to check out all of his impressive back catalogue, wait for the probably never to be released box set covering his work over all the various labels he has recorded for or maybe just start with ‘No Sad Songs’ which right now is making all the right noises to be considered to be the strongest album the Lilac Time have released to date. And that’s some claim.
This time the Lilac Time line-up is Stephen Duffy, providing his distinctive vocals (maybe a little more mellow on this outing) as well as playing guitars, drums and bass; brother Nick on banjo, bouzouki and accordion (and who defines much of the Lilac Time’s sound); Melvin Duffy (no relation to the other Duffys on the album) on pedal steel and Stephen’s wife Claire contributing keyboards, strings and outstanding, heavenly vocals. The album consists of ten songs and lasts for about forty minutes, but still it ends far too soon. In fact, the first listen seemed to be over in a flash, Stephen Duffy has always written compelling melodies, the kind that wrap themselves around the listener, gently encasing you in their beauty and as the songs unfold you find yourself in a place you just don’t want to leave, such is the warmth radiating from this sound the album almost becomes your safe place and you can never stay too long.
The Lilac Time draw from their influences, the band’s name comes from Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ ('Five Leaves Left') which gives some indication of where the band are coming from, but that’s only a small part of their sound. While Duffy’s lyrics can and have been cutting and dark at times the tunes that he dresses them up in and the sympathetic production that he affords these songs make the Lilac Time’s music much more accessible and attractive than a list of Duffy’s influences would suggest.
‘Babylon Revisited’ is a perfect example of how the Lilac Time combine the best of folk and pop, with an irresistible melodic carefree Caribbean lilt that belies lyrics like “if big business paid their tax, everyone else could relax”. The fading “we won’t fade away” is so infectious you’ll find yourself singing along after just one play. The song also demonstrates that although Stephen Duffy might well be the face of the Lilac Time ‘No Sad Songs’ is very much a group effort. Apart from the exceptional musical skills of all concerned special, mention has to be made of Claire Duffy’s vocal contribution. She injects so much into each song and turns what are already excellent performances into exceptional ones.
‘Rag Tag & Bobtail’ was written by Nick Duffy and is the only (mainly) instrumental on the album. Again it’s an irresistible piece of music, and shorn of brother Stephen’s captivating lyrics the music is given a chance to shine alone. It’s another melody that will be spinning inside your head for days.
Mention should also be made of the excellent way the album is presented, available as a digipak CD and also on vinyl (as well as download) the lyric booklet and an additional small ‘Bohemia Forever!’ booklet detailing a potted history of the band both make for interesting reading. There is suggestion that a further ten songs written at the same time as those chosen for ‘No Sad Songs’ might eventually see the light of day; if they are even half as good as those on this album we can only hope that the Lilac Time don’t keep us waiting too long.
The First Song of Spring
She Writes a Symphony
The Wedding Song
No Sad Songs
The Dream That Woke Me
The Western Greyhound
Rag Tag & Bobtail
A Cat On the Longwave