The Lilac Time Paradise Circus
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With bolder instrumentation, a brighter overall atmosphere, and a perfect glistening pop polish, Paradise Circus expands on the glorious promise of the Lilac Time's debut. Stephen Duffy might have later decried that the album was a more commercial affair than he would have liked, but its stunning melodies and sweet acoustic nature make for addictive listening. Duffy claims that studio execs forced the band back into the studio to cut singles and to Americanize their songs. Of course, such corporate tinkering stifles the creative process, but the insistence on catchy choruses does wonders for the band. Duffy and company seem to have looked to their peers for inspiration. Perhaps more here than on any other Lilac Time album, the band's influences are readily apparent. Channeling the Smiths, Nick Drake, and the Byrds, they package the mix into their own radio-friendly folk-pop style and create perhaps their most accessible album. Other than two brief instrumentals and the somber "She Still Loves You" and "Father Mother Wife and Child," the songs of Paradise Circus are happy etchings that immediately embed themselves in the catchy-tune section of a listener's brain. "The Beauty in Your Body" is musically about as close to Nick Drake as a song can be, though its melodramatic premise adds a chamber pop element. Throughout the album, Duffy's lyrics are as poetic and bittersweet as ever, but he delivers them with a bouncy step. Occasionally, horns and background vocals feel overly forced, for which one can blame the execs, but the album absolutely overflows with Johnny Marr-like jangling acoustic guitars and bluesy harmonica, pristine mandolins, and mesmerizing tempos that mingle to perfection with Duffy's elliptical, wry vocals. Ardent fans know that Duffy frequently crafts songs that suggest chugging trains, and Paradise Circus contains a plethora of selections that fit this bill: "The Lost Girl in the Midnight Sun," "The Days of the Week," "The Girl Who Waves at Trains," and "The Rollercoaster Song." Though its fine singles may not have become the hits they deserved to become, Paradise Circus as a whole is even stronger than its shiny, catchy highlights. As they would do throughout their career, the Lilac Time prove here that a great singles band can be simultaneously heady and masterful at crafting marvelous albums.