Memphis pop icon Van Duren was not only a contemporary of Big Star, he auditioned to replace Chris Bell and played with both Chris and Jody Stephens in The Baker Street Regulars. Managed by Andrew Loog Oldham (The Rolling Stones), his 1978 debut album, Are You Serious?, found folks comparing him to artists like Todd Rundgren and Paul McCartney.

Now, four decades later, thanks to the acclaimed documentary Waiting: The Van Duren Story, and its accompanying soundtrack, many discovered Van Duren for the first time, while those who knew about him found out what really happened. Finally, Are You Serious? returns, remastered from the original analog tapes on CD, LP, and—for the first time—digital.

Thirteen originals written by Duren (with Jody Stephens being the only co-writer on one track), and packaging featuring new liner notes from Van and previously unseen photos, it’s time to get serious about the album that has had collectors searching high and low for a copy for years. Full disclosure: I’ve owned a copy of both albums, when they were briefly available on CD, so I know and love these songs; therefore, I may not be so objective. FACT: “Chemical Fire”, “Grow Yourself Up” are constants on my iPod and have been for years – certainly, Are You Serious? has been a favorite of mine from the first time I heard it. FACT: my wife borrowed (unbeknownst to me) Are You Serious? and immediately reacted with “Why the fuck isn’t “Chemical Fire” in rotation on every classic rock playlist? This album is amazing. Holy shit.” She was quite emphatic and on point – and that’s the reaction you’ll (hopefully) have when you hear this newly remastered edition. The album, in its original form, sounded great, but now, there are nuances that you couldn’t pick up on, previously, and it takes the songs to another stratosphere.

If there’s a “quandary” in picking out the tracks to hone in on, it’s because they’re all so good – and that’s not hyperbole. The structuring, the execution and performances are so finely tuned that there isn’t a “stand out” – it’s a complete work of flawless delivery. But okay – to be fair, I have my favorites. If it’s unfair to point out the obvious Todd Rundgren comparisons, I apologize, but one listen to “Chemical Fire” and (especially) “Grow Yourself Up”, you can easily think it’s Runt, but Van Duren’s voice is much richer, fuller and more emotive. Both “Waiting” and “This Love Inside” are perfect love letters – if you don’t have a soul or a heart, you won’t get these songs at all.

After the release of Are You Serious?, Van Duren immediately returned to the studio—recording 14 tracks (one being a medley of two songs) that rivaled his tremendous debut. But, the album was shelved and didn’t see the light of day for two decades, when inexplicably, it was released in Japan – without any input from Mr. Duren. The not-quite-pretty details are chronicled in the aforementioned documentary, Waiting: The Van Duren Story. But now, Idiot Optimism returns on CD as Van originally intended it to look and sound. Plus, it makes its first-ever appearance on (double) LP and digital.

To me, the marked difference between Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism is that Idiot Optimism is a harder-rocking album; the focus is a tad more on guitars than keyboards. The band that accompanies Mr. Duren is tight and powerful and the performances come across as such. That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of beauty and longing, as on the standout track, “Tennessee, I’m Trying”, which is pure sweetness and heartache, while rollicking along with some tasty Beatles ’66-style guitars (listen for those 7th chords). “Bear With Me All The Way” is a good old-fashioned boogie/stomper; a neat approximation of the George Harrison/Paul McCartney & Wings sound; the semi-legendary “Andy, Please” is here, in its “official” release/glory; “Torn In Half” is a quasi-prog masterpiece with so many movements that are simply stunning; Chris Bell’s “Make A Scene” is given a funkier groove (and sounds a little more sinister than the original, frankly!) and the pithy “Woman Needs Man Needs Woman” is another moment of joy wrapped in melodic brilliance and quirkiness.

With full creative control from Mr. Duren, this reissue of Idiot Optimism is packaged with new art, liner notes from Van, outlining the history of the album, and many previously unseen photos. Featuring 14 originals and the previously-mentioned version of “Make A Scene,” this new edition is remastered from the original analog tapes. Idiot Optimism has never looked nor sounded better.

Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism will be available Friday, October 30th, 2020

By Rob Ross

Rob Ross has been involved in the music industry for over 30 years - as guitarist/singer/songwriter with The Punch Line, freelance journalist, producer, manager and working for independent and major record labels. He resides in Staten Island, New York with his wife and cats; he works out a lot, reads voraciously, loves Big Star, traveling down South and his orange Gretsch. He's pretty groovy!

2 thoughts on “RE-ISSUES REVIEW: VAN DUREN, “Are You Serious?” and “Idiot Optimism””
  1. Are you serious? Turn it up!
    One of my favorite and a pivotal album at that. First heard “Chemical Fire” on WIOQ in Philly back in 1978. Found a copy of the album at The Record Bar and never looked back. Both albums are must listened! I personally waited 18 years to hear Idiot Optimism and it was worth the wait. Get it now!

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