Van Duren

Are You Serious?

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Van Duren was part of the small but influential Memphis power pop scene of the '70s that produced Big Star and the Scruffs, and he was more than just a casual observer -- Duren gigged regularly with Chris Bell and auditioned for a guitar slot in Big Star but failed to get the gig. The latter is something of a surprise, as Duren was gifted songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, and in 1977 he scored a deal with Big Sound Records, a short-lived label run by fellow power pop obsessive Jon Tiven, and headed off to Connecticut to record his debut album, Are You Serious? While Duren has a passionate following among pop devotees, Are You Serious? has never quite gained the same sort of cult acclaim as Big Star and the Scruffs, and frankly that may well be because Duren was never as quirky as either of those acts. The angular melodies of Radio City and the aggressive angst of Wanna Meet the Scruffs? set those albums apart from most power pop acts of their day, but by comparison Duren sounds like a cross between Emitt Rhodes and Badfinger, and while his embrace of pop classicism is impressive, ultimately the more traditional slant of his music and the regular-guy cynicism of his lyrics make for a less interesting album than what his peers in the smart hooky stuff were known for. That's not so say Are You Serious? isn't impressive, especially given that Duren plays everything but drums on most tracks, and at a time when Beatles-influenced pop was a rare commodity, this album must have been a breath of fresh air for the few who ran across it. But for all Van Duren's strength as a songwriter and his very impressive vocal chops, Are You Serious? is an album that, rather than shaking the framework of '70s pop, selectively embraced it, and for all its tunefulness it doesn't sound as revelatory 30 years on.

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