Some people prefer single malt whiskies for the individual flavor of a particular distilled alcoholic essence. Others choose a blend that plays one taste against the other, i.e., a bit of tangy tartness complemented by a hint of sweetness and balanced by the suggestion of peat and oak. While single malts generally cost more, a well-crafted blend offers greater rewards to the attentive drinker. Why savor one flavor when one can take pleasure in a multitude? The Manitoba, Canadian band the Duhks aurally resemble a good blended whiskey. They take a number of different musical styles, such as Celtic, Latin, bluegrass, French Canadian, contemporary pop, and the blues, and combine them together in ways that let the various styles retain their individual characteristics and still allow them to intermingle with each other.
Take the Duhks’ cover of the traditional spiritual “Death Came a Knockin’”. Jessica Havey’s soulful singing as a woman glad to go to her heavenly reward after a hard life on Earth is accented by Scott “Senor” Senior ‘s happy Caribbean percussion, Leonard Podolak’s five-string Appalachian-style banjo picking, Tania Elizabeth’s Irish fiddle licks, and Jordan McConnell’s gospel harmony vocals. Each component can be easily separated by a focused listener. Bela Fleck produced the record so that each musical element sounds clear, bright, and crisp. However, the way in which these elements interact yields the greater enjoyment. The syncopated drumming and banjo plucking create a third rhythm when heard together, and when the fiddle starts to soar into long lines against the clipped vocals, an aching gets added to the mix. After all, this is death that’s being referred to. One may be headed to paradise but having to die first makes the journey bittersweet.
The 14 cuts on the Duhks’ self-titled release are evenly split between traditional tunes and covers, with a few self-penned compositions thrown in (several of the traditional songs and all of the self-penned tunes are instrumentals). The band’s greatest strength lies in its members’ instrumental virtuosity. Discerning the most talented player is difficult because each person displays special talents. The fast-paced jigs and reels move along spryly, as they should, and let the soloists flash their special abilities. For example, the four Irish songs that comprise “Gene’s Machine” not only showcase the stringed instruments as one might expect, but also reveal percussionist Senior’s ability to make various drums work like a bohdran. On the cuts with words, lead vocalist Havey’s range spans from low and husky, deep-throated growls to birdlike chirps, depending on the lyrical needs. She and her mates do a good job of playing off each other, so that the vocals function as another instrument.
Two of the best songs are cover versions of tunes by Canadian singer songwriters: Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson’s sardonic take on desire, “Everybody Knows”, and Allan Fraser’s ode to loneliness, “Dance Hall Girls”. The Duhks perform Cohen straight, with an emphasis on the beat. They understand there is no need to smirk (vocally or instrumentally) when lyrics concern mendacity and deception—the words and tune speak for themselves. And it’s good to have Fraser’s song salvaged from obscurity. The former member of the cult folk-rock band Fraser and DeBolt and his music from the ‘70s have been largely forgotten. “Dance Hall Girls” show why fans once embraced the group so strongly. The song’s combination of lusty physicality and spiritual loss resonate in a way similar to tunes of another songwriter who frequently employed the persona of being alone among the many, the late Townes Van Zandt.
The two worst songs are also covers, which reveals the Duhks’ greatest challenge is in finding good material. This is a common problem for bands that don’t write most of their own stuff. Their reggae version of Sting’s “Love Is the Seventh Wave” is somewhat forgettable and uninspired. The same is true of Paul Brady’s banal “You and I”, which includes such trite phrases as a chorus that begins “You and I / Are really just the same”. Duh, everyone is created equal. How profound (not).
Like a good blended whiskey, the Duhks are best appreciated if taken in small doses. Listening to the album as a whole can be overwhelming and even a bit tiring because of the constant barrage of musical ability on display. Take each song on its own merit for maximum enjoyment.
// Notes from the Road
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