Friday, November 10, 2006

A Handsome Poet's Finest Hour

That Man Fantastic (Art-Pop)
LP: Pop Songs for Art Films (2006)

A select few have been aware of Stephen Duffy's presence in San Francisco music circles since the early 90s, notably with modern rock geniuses Handsome Poets.

His latest project, Pop Songs for Art Films, a meditation on maturity, contentment, isolation and faded dreams, continues his tradition of crafting moody evocative pop influenced by - among others - Beth Gibbons, Brian Eno, David Bowie, U2, Nick Drake, and Rinse Dream. Well, if you're going to have influences you couldn't do much better than that, and on this record That Man Fantastic more than live up to them.

Second Skin
, a standout track, is distinguished by Duffy's yearning vocals and trademark circular acoustic guitar patterns. Many of the songs are haunted by liberal applications of reverb and a shimmering moodiness courtesy of Brother Jack Elder's guitar work, notably on She Who is Always in My Thoughts, a touching tribute to a constant companion.

In fact there are lovely guitar touches all over this beautifully produced album; check the spooky musings of Electricity. Instrumentally there is much else to admire, including stirring melodic bass courtesy of David Brooks, and some lovely piano work, for instance on Layer upon Layer. Stephen, have you been taking lessons on the old joanna? Nice one.

There are other surprises on this album, too. Listening to The Prayer, TMF seem to have created a new genre, "ambient rock!" If that sounds weird, give it a spin - I have feeling you'll be impressed. Fans will enjoy spotting influences here, but then there are some songs, like Or all 6, (say it fast, you'll get the pun) and Whenever I See the Sun (quite often in California, I'd have thought!), which are pure Stephen Duffy. I can't explain what that means, you'll have to hear for yourself.

After listening to Pop Songs for Art Films, I rather pretentiously reminded myself of T.S. Eliot's poem Little Gidding, where Eliot writes: "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time". It really feels like Duffy and his cohorts have effected a kind of homecoming on this record. The cover photo shows band members relaxing on a couch in the middle of the sidewalk, a comfortable if somewhat exposed location which sums up the feeling of much of this album - cozy and welcoming, yet spacious and occasionally edgy.

Celebrating the mystery of creation and a love reborn, Pop Songs for Art Films is Stephen Duffy's finest hour.

Artist web site:


Masumi said...

Does Stephen Duffy have a new band?

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Ah, Masumi, that would be a different Stephen Duffy, the one who's been composing forgettable pop songs with the lamentable Robbie whathisface. (Y'know, the fella who's no good.)

No, this Stephen Duffy is the esteemed Etienne Dufay (his real name), handsome poet of the Oakland diocese by way of Macclesfield. A lot of people get them confused, including his mum (Stephen Duffy's, I mean.) : P