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The Dutchess and the Duke

Sunset/Sunrise

(Hardly Art; US: 6 Oct 2009; UK: 7 Dec 2009)

Last time out, the Dutchess & the Duke laid their claim with She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke, a ramshackle debut that settled on territory owing no small debt to Beggars Banquet-era Rolling Stones. Filtering that classic album’s stomping acoustic blues-rock through a prism of sparse-yet-spirited gypsy folksiness, it was anything but a nostalgia act, operating on a lo-fi method of deflation as opposed to derivation.


The girl-n-boy duo continues to operate in such a world, and yet in many ways the utterly bracing Sunset/Sunrise has grown considerably from its predecessor. For one thing, due in large part to their teaming up with producer Greg Ashley and working in a real studio, they’ve thankfully gotten rid of the annoyingly tingly trebles that occasionally marred their guitar strumming. Way more than that, though, the new setting helped expand their sound in just the right ways, allowing them to create a disarmingly poignant set of ten songs that come together in simple, haunting splendor. With inventive arrangements that include beautiful chamber strings, droning organs, and guitar interplay, they’ve created a vibrant album rife with emotional anxiety.


A remarkable development is how Sunset/Sunrise frequently exudes a distinctly ‘60s British Isles folk flavor, as on opener “Hands”. A wistful minor key progression lays the groundwork for Duke Jesse Loritz’s preoccupation with nature and the foggy passage of days, as he sings about “counting the days I’ve got left” with increasing desperation and hopelessness. It seems to fit into a framework of lovelorn anxiety and separation, evoking images of what could be a homesick soldier or drifter growing increasingly out of touch as he tries “to hold on”.


Likewise, the following track finds the duo harmonizing on the words “I’m a long, long way from you in my heart” during the chorus. What makes such lines particularly evocative is how the constant male/female harmonies seem to embody the emotional distance between two lost souls, who are simultaneously pining for one another and yet come together only in their anguish.


The stunning “When You Leave My Arms”—in a similar tone to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene”—finds Dutchess Kimberly Morrison taking the lead vocal to plead with her man to “not give into her charms”. One of the more dramatic and climactic moments on Sunset/Sunrise, it finds the band utilizing a fuller sonic palette complete with sweeping crescendos and cymbal crashes to convey a mounting mood of uncertain suspicion and desperation.


Thematic dualities hinted at by the album’s title begin to surface around every corner. There’s a constant preoccupation with personal doubt juxtaposed with images of the larger power of nature, a looming constant amidst the turmoil. The sun creates a literal illustration of this kind of split on “New Shadow”: “In the day, in the dark / In the mind, in the heart / There’s a shadow walking with me all the time / When I’m right, when I’m wrong / If I’m weak, if I’m strong”. Elements of nature are clearly not very comforting: amidst the ghostly wails of the title track come the words “You know tomorrow and yesterday / You know the day turns into night / And every time the sun rises and sets upon your soul / Girl you know there is no place to go.”


As with that track and others, thoughts of life and death emerge with a sort freewheeling abandon all over the album, mingling with the spirit of wandering alienation. On “Let It Die”, the Duke sings about how his “Woman lies sweetly / With a love he just can’t see / Inside there’s a little child now / With a heart and soul that’s free”. Strangely, this notion of new life seems to inspire his desire to escape his own life, as he repeatedly sings the words of the title, which could be taken in multiple ways.


The album’s cheeriest, most upbeat moments end up being the most deceiving: “I Don’t Feel Anything” may be about the most ebullient track here, but of course comes around to the admonition that “there’s nothing left of our love”. Lest you think by now that this album is way too relentlessly morose, let it be said that in effect it doesn’t come together quite that way. One of the very finest, most effective moments on all of Sunset/Sunrise arrives during the electric guitar solo of this track, for instance. It’s a brittle, almost tinny line that’s so catchy and irresistible that it nearly turns around the entire album’s bleakness in a mere 15 seconds. It’s not the only place this happens, either. Plenty of little melodic flourishes emerge throughout in the form of these unexpected little solos that deftly weave in and out, as if to alleviate the torment consuming the harmonizing voices.


The Dutchess & the Duke conclude with a perfect encapsulation on “The River”, where the many dualities finally merge together: a link is found between life and death in the idea of surrendering one’s body to the forces of nature in the ground. Life is cyclical and all related, humans are inextricable from their environment and the haunted voices are finally at peace—a moving denouement for an album of such dramatic longing.


This relatively concise and closely-wound song cycle seems predominantly concerned with notions of change, taking place in a spirit of transition and the natural uncertainty that accompanies it. Whether this concerns a state between day and night, love and suspicion or life and death itself is a line that frequently gets blurred to colorful effect. All of the dire imagery probably isn’t meant to be taken literally anyway, but rather as a way of putting tangible images to mercurial emotions. In the end there’s a light-heartedness to the whole package that’s hard to ignore, suggesting a willingness to eventually embrace the inevitable, whatever that may be. As the duke sings at one point, “I could stay the same forever, but it wouldn’t be too much fun”.

Rating:

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