Review: The Duchess and Duke – Sunset/Sunrise
(Posted at WearsTheTrousers.com)
Seattle based folk-duo The Duchess and Duke first came to light with their overwhelmingly well-received debut ‘She’s the Duchess, I’m the Duke’. Their particular brand of raucous, gritty folk-rock swagger caused music critics to giddily spew accolades– including a highly-respectable 8.1 from famously harsh music behemoth Pitchfork – and resulted in a tour with folk giants Fleet Foxes.
On their sophomore album, however, their whisky soaked blues are swapped for something altogether more sobering – ‘Sunset/Sunrise’ was apparently influenced by newly-wed front man Lortz’s acclimatization to domesticity – but if you’re expecting a twee, simpering, 50’s-style album revelling in the joys of domestic bliss, I suggest you look elsewhere. A deep sense of loneliness and regret infuses ‘Sunset/Sunrise’ – it’s an exercise in how the greatest expression of love can sometimes leave you lonelier than before. Or, put simply: trouble in paradise.
The album opens on a distinctly downbeat note on the waltzing ‘Hands’, which finds Lortz intoning ‘Sun comes up/ I’m counting the days I’ve got left’ like a particularly depressed Bill Callahan. Like most of the songs on ‘Sunset/Sunrise’, ‘Hands’ is deceptively simple, it’s warm, strummed guitar melody and Lortz’s smooth, smoky croon veiling an undercurrent of unfaithfulness, and the sense of abandonment it can bring: ‘in your heart there’s a different man/ And I’m finding it hard to stay strong’.
Elsewhere, the simplistic joy of their debut has been replaced with a hardened cynicism; on ‘Scorpio’, Lortz and Morrison sing ‘I feel good, I feel fine/ the sky is blue, the sun is shining’ in possibly the most pessimistic drone they can muster, while funeral strings waltz dizzily around them. Their fake grimaces may be almost visible, but their harmonies are heavenly, their voices interweaving enviably.
‘Sunset/Sunrise’ may not have the happy-go-lucky, rootsy appeal of its predecessor, but it does have a distinct dissonance possessed by few folk acts of their pedigree – the juxtaposition between their sombre, grave lyrics and their warm, folky instrumentation makes ‘Sunset/Sunrise’ admittedly not a particularly easy listen, but certainly a rewarding one – this is best exemplified on the unsettling ‘Let It Die’, who’s rushing, tumbling folk melody jars with it’s disturbing narrative – Lortz tells the tale of a husband, entrapped in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife, who dreams of escape. Lortz is not a man to mince his words, and his stark economy with lyrics only serves to highlight the tangible sense of unease pervading this record – ‘I don’t wanna be here no more, I don’t wanna be here no more’ he sings on ‘Let It Die’, and to be honest, he simply couldn’t have put it better.
It’s easy to forget that The Duchess and Duke are a duo, and respect must be paid to Lortz’s female counterpart – Duchess Kimberly Morrison is in possession of lush, rich, cascading vocals, and her forlorn croak transcends Lortz’s wail perfectly. However, she proves she is far more than a backing singer, and earns her co-album credits with distinction on ‘When You Leave My Arms’ – surely one of the album highlights. Again, the track demonstrates ‘Sunset/Sunrise’s eerie marriage of the sweet and the sinister – Morrison’s coos of ‘I know where you go; I know what you’re after’ set against thunderous drums are downright spooky. And again, the impending threat of infidelity bleeds into The Duchess and Duke’s lyrics: ‘I know she holds you tightly and you say the same things to her that you say to me’ Morrison moans on the same track.
They’re the kind of band that leaves you begging for a back story – an explanation as to what kind of emotional fissures could have produced such incessant melancholy.
So although Lortz and Morrison may have dumped their Beach Boys-influenced sunshine for the allures of ‘Sunset/Sunrise’s southern gothic twilight, they haven’t quite thrown the baby out with the bathwater – ‘Sunset/Sunrise’ may be unsettling, but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with an album of admirable complexity – an album which is as heart-warming as it is heart wrenching.