This week, in addition to following the Irish Tour, we look at Duke's last and next album, and muse on the brilliant songs on both. (Also take a look at the comments by Steven Rainey and "Rigsy" give a short review of Elephant Graveyard and Nail on the Head on the BBC Blogs.
Having participated in Duke Special’s PledgeMusic.com campaign, by way of requesting “The Empire CD, DVD and New Album Box” I received an early Look Out Machines! The album is fantastic, in my opinion. Still, it is a couple of months before it is officially released, so it’s premature to write a review of the album. I thought it would be interesting to compare Look Out Machines! to his last album, Oh Pioneer and, perhaps whet the reader’s appetite for the new album, describing it within the context of his last one.
I like looking at Mr. Wilson’s work over time, as his style has changes, develops and matures. If haven’t heard the new album yet, this preview will hopefully give you some idea as to what to expect. I've written a series of short descriptions of the songs, with some off-the-cuff remarks about how they strike me after just a few listens.
The Two Albums
Step Into the Magical, Nail on the Head, Statues, Tweed Coats, Domino, In a Dive, Elephant Graveyard, Stepping Stones, Wingman, Drop the Bomb, Son of the Left Hand
Oh Pioneer also had eleven songs:
Stargazers of the World Unite, Little Black Fish, Punch of a Friend, Snakes in the Grass, Condition, Nothing Shall Come Between Us, Lost Chord, My Lazy Savior, How I Learned to Love the Sun, Always Been There, and Twice Around the Island
The two albums are very different - though I like both of them - I would have to say that Look Out Machines! is the stronger - vocally, lyrically, and musically. That’s not to say anything negative about Oh Pioneer, though. :-)
A Look Back at Oh Pioneer
Looking back at the online reviews of Oh Pioneer, I certainly agree with Rhys Milsom’s description of the album as having a “enclosed, warm atmosphere.” There’s a constrained, subdued feeling to it, as if we are looking through a keyhole (or telescope) to witness the songs and their stories. The ambiance of the music is reflected as well in the album cover. The music is often melancholic, somehow muted. (The song Punch of a Friend, which inspired the name of this site was also briefly discussed several months ago.)
I sometimes listen to Duke’s songs with an ear toward the time signature. Waltzes, songs with three-quarter time signature (as well as 6/8 time) harken to an earlier era, ballroom dancing, and elicit feelings of familiarity. To me, they often sound like “comfort” songs, like the reassuring Nothing Shall Come Between Us.
In reviewing Oh Pioneer, Milsom wrote in 2012: “The predecessor, Under The Dark Cloth, released last year, bleeds into this album like water softening soil and dribbles through the layers of this album until it reaches where Duke began.” I'd have to agree with that. Snakes in the Grass, in particular, seems to pull from Under the Dark Cloth, with its heavy production, horn sounds, and its operatic refrain, “Wayward Child!”
"This time silence is not golden, voices must be heard,
Can’t bury them, bury them, our weapons will be words….
Still the tongue, whatever the price
Maybe a vision could help hard ground turn..."
Little Black Fish and How I Learned to Love the Sun are two of the best on the album - to my ears - especially for melody. For much of the album, Duke stays in his lower register, exploring a narrow range of notes that form Oh Pioneer's melodies. These two songs depart from that, and it works well to add a little variety to the mix.
The styles of lyrical expression seem different on the two albums. Oh Pioneer strikes me as being more narrative. Whether this is from the lyrics themselves, or from the fact that Mr. Wilson put effort to tie his songs to specific incidents in his life, and things he read, I’m not exactly sure. The album’s title comes from Willa Cather’s novel, O Pioneer! Other references on the album include John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Its sources are eclectic, pulling from literary sources, situations, and descriptions Mr. Wilson provided in interviews and linear notes on his lyric sheet turned tea towel. In recent interviews, he has been more reluctant to characterize Look Out Machines!
It never felt to me like Oh Pioneer was part of the so-called “bohemian chic” or vaudeville style so often attributed to Duke Special. Since I only started listening to Duke Special’s music in the summer of 2014, I’ve had to do some backtracking to discover his earlier work. And if he was hinting at a departure from that framework before, his forthcoming April album marks a clear passage into something new.
Preview of Look Out Machines!
As I write this blog entry, I’ve listened to the album in its entirety about five times, so I can’t say it all seems familiar to me yet. I haven’t reached the point where I feel like I’ve really taken it all in. So, what follows are some early impressions. No doubt that with more listen sessions I’ll hear new things. What's clear is that the new album shines bright.
Some songs seem to pair off or form a couplet of thoughts or chain of images that somehow fit together. Duke’s voice sounds a little older, richer, wizened by time. At times, it expresses depths of joy and sorrow that pulls you in, and indeed it does on Look Out Machines!
Wingman is a perfect first song for the album. After the muted Oh Pioneer, Duke pries the listeners experience open. Images of a plane twirling around, diving, flying ever higher. The song’s melody and background strings enhance the image painted by the lyrics - as if rising and falling in air. I sometimes am inclined to like songs in which Duke’s voice explores a few octaves - and he does just that in this song. It works beautifully. This is one of my favorites from the album. It will get in your head and stick!
2. Elephant Graveyard
Elephant Graveyard was the first single from the album. If you're like me, you were struck by how different it sounds from Duke’s earlier works. With a distinct electronic sound, layered by blankets of drum, syntho-string, cymbals, organ, and backing vocals I found it quite intriguing when I first heard it.
More than anything, however, it made me wonder what the album would be like. Hearing a song in isolation, pulled out of its album can be a disconcerting. I think it fits very well within the context of the album. I like hearing the two songs together. As the second song, it continues the theme set forth in Wingman. (Read "A Trip to the Elephant Graveyard (And Back Again)" for more on this song.)
3. Step to the Magical
With the third song of the album, a few surprises come out. It starts with a staccato of words, drums, and accenting keyboard. Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge. The image of someone spinning and dancing, which we’ve heard in Brixton Leaves (“Rose, she ain't like the others, she spins, a dervish mother”) comes through again:
“Spinning now, her skirt’s in circles”
Blurring, movement, celluloid bouncing and dancing, the song pulls you out of your mood and spins you around. Delightful, and worth more of a description than I can do now. Feel the beat hitting your chest? You will.
4. In a Dive
I’ve heard this song a few times before from YouTube, so we know it’s been around a bit. More subdued than the previous song perhaps, it’s the first time (to my ears) we hear Duke’s piano playing a few chords on the album - always a welcome sound. It’s a pleasant ballad, with a subtle message. Since I don’t want to get into the lyrics of an unreleased song, I may explore this a bit more down the road. Duke effectively pulls a bit from the Beatles’ Across the Universe with his beautiful refrain, “....On and on and on and on…”
I was fortunate to see Duke perform this live last summer in Bangor. Though I didn’t know the name of the song at the time (and it seems to have undergone a name change since then as well...). Before performing the song in Bangor, he told a little story about his teenage years. While working one summer, he was bored and remembers seeing a girl. The girl and he exchanged a few glances, or maybe flirted a bit, but Duke said he was really too young to know what to do next, so nothing happened. She stayed in his memory.
6. Song of the Left Hand
Oh boy. Here’s a real power ballad. The leading bass drones - heavy and ominous, and very techno. I can’t really think of anything Duke’s done that sounds similar. The rhythm changes for the chorus, sounding a bit lighter and conversational. Layers of vocals and harmony fill out the spaces. This is a really striking song.
7. Look Out Machines
Rolling thunder of a drum machine runs underneath, moving the song along like a conveyer belt. The melody dances around this heaviness, defying the mechanization. During the chorus, the cymbals (or syntho-cymbals) are pounded on, like one hears in so many of the early Beatle songs. The rolling thunder becomes more of a gallop toward the end of the song, and we hear the machine fade out.
“What’s gone is gone, so drop the bomb.”
One of my favorites.
8. Nail on the Head
A little jazzy and rock-and-roll piano comes in and out as Duke sings. I really thinks he sounds like David Bowie in a few places. For example, when Duke's voice drops effortlessly down the scale it sounds quite similar to Bowie’s Boys for a few seconds. Beyond even that Bowie-esque twist of melody, there’s something in his voice that reminds me of the thin White Duke and the Talking Heads. A different tone, or perhaps a change in phrasing...
9. Tweed Coats
Here’s a straightforward song - just Duke’s voice and piano...until you hear some ambiance of a train station, or hall in the background. Someone’s talking over a speaker system, but just faintly. Interesting after the techno onslaught your ears have just taken, this simple melody stops you in your tracks. What's really going on in it? Lyrically, I think it, as well as at least 3 or 4 other songs on the album are a step above what he’s written before.
10. Stepping Stones
This song will rip your heart out. Just be forewarned. It’s Duke on piano. Drum machine comes in and out...a little string sound. This is when the quality of Mr. Wilson’s voice comes to fore. Unless I’m wrong, this is one of those songs in that strange 6/8 time. The organ pecks out the background and it sounds a bit like a power ballad with touch of mid-1960s folk rock organ. The lyrics and vocals are up front, and really powerful. The female background singer is a great touch, adding enough contrast to make the song sound even heavier. (It reminds me a bit of one of Leonard Cohen’s prayer-songs.)
To me, Tweed Coats and Stepping Stones form the second couplet on this album
The song Domino, which Mr. Special recorded last summer as a promotion for East Side Arts, is redone with backing vocals and instrumentation. (You can read about that version in "Duke Special's Domino.") No longer quite so straight-forward, the idyllic melody is accented by rhythm shifts to-and-fro as if the dominoes are a bit unsteady, (reminiscent of How I Learned to Love the Sun plays with the timing to distort and make dizzy). There’s a lazy clap that (barely) keeps the whole song moving.
The voice, as in Stepping Stones, sounds a bit older, perhaps a little grittier, this time reverberating a bit. It’s simply a brilliant song. Female background vocals harmonize nicely. The chorus fades out, a bit like a favorite Beatle song (Hey Jude?)...Duke singing over it, and the album ends.
So there you have it. I hope you’re intrigued, though I’m sure my song descriptions are quite inadequate and perhaps different than what others would write. But then, I have to say that Look Out Machines! is a powerful, beautiful album that can’t be taken in with just one or two sittings. Now that I’m finished analyzing it, I plan to kick back and let it wash over me without thinking about it. And so it begins again....
Look Out Machines is out in April!