Friday, September 12, 2008

Album Review: A Duke And His Kingdom

Oh, the joys of being a music industry insider! One Note Ahead favorite Matt Duke’s second album won’t be released to the general public until September 23rd, but my fellow insiders have been giving me their opinions of it for nearly four-and-a-half months! Long before I got my hands on a promo copy, I knew that Kingdom Underground (Rykodisc/MAD Dragon) would be a controversial offering. For example, one of my peers raved to me that this album is simply amazing and that it captures Matt’s raw intensity so much more than his debut album, Winter Child. But I recall another one of my friends in the biz moaning to me that KU is a too-polished effort, that all of its best songs can be found in its first half, and that its last few tracks sound like a bunch of random B-sides.

My opinion falls somewhere in between these extremes.

For starters, Kingdom Underground is a strange title for an album that really has nothing “underground” about it. If “radio friendly” was the phrase of the day for Winter Child, “pop friendly” is Kingdom Underground’s guiding principle. Unusually for Matt, all of the songs are noticeably hooky, while Marshall Altman’s production and arrangements ensure that even the folkier and rockier tracks are sweetened a bit. Thus, acoustically-based numbers like “Spilt Milk” and the gorgeous “30 Some Days” are fleshed out with full bands; “I’ve Got Atrophy On The Brain” doesn’t get to be the riff-driven heavy rocker it wants to be; “Rose” could have been cut at a Sheryl Crow session; and “Sex and Reruns” loses its folk-rock edge in a sea of electronic effects. Still, the bottom line is that these cuts all sound good—simple as that. And as a vocalist, Matt does have more mad moments than he’s had on any of his previous releases, displaying at least some of that rawness which was largely absent from Winter Child.

What about the material? Out of KU’s ten songs, the first five range from solid to fantastic. “The Father, The Son And The Harlot’s Ghost” is a logical successor to Winter Child’s “Tidal Waves,” and none the worse for it. “Sex And Reruns” is about neither sex nor reruns, but the art of muddling through: “When you suck at life but you’re much too scared to die/Embrace the sweet indifference with your brothers and we’ll march in time.” The improbably-titled “I’ve Got Atrophy On The Brain” goes from muddling through to barely holding on, with declarations such as “You’re sick, the time you’ve lost, you choke/The bile’s in your throat.” Its brilliantly gloomy lyrics are rivaled only by one of Matt’s best melodies yet. (The other songs on the first half are “Rabbit” and “30 Some Days,” both released on a digital single over the summer.) Does the second half of the album pale in comparison to the first? Unfortunately. The last five songs aren’t terrible, but Matt has better songs that would have been more welcome and one has to wonder why they weren’t used. Of KU’s second half, “Rose” stands out as a fun slab of rock ‘n’ roll with a cool “Lady Marmalade”-styled refrain. The disconcerting “Walk It Off” affords Matt the opportunity to freak out vocally, and his emotionally-packed performance on “Spilt Milk” might just make listeners think there’s more to the song than there actually is.

Kingdom Underground was recorded in less than a month. While it is not a bad album, it could have been a great album if only more time and care had been put into it. The entire body of work could have been as strong as the first five tracks, but in the final analysis, KU comes off as a rushed effort that tries to do right by the artist, but does not always succeed. But that’s just my opinion, and of course....everybody has one.

One Note Ahead article on Winter Child:

Music and more info:

Copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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