[20 February 2006]
What do you do if you are a new band nobody’s heard of? You record a CD that shows off your talents so you can get gigs outside of your home area and broaden your audience. If you are a group as diverse as The Duhks, you offer up a sampler platter with songs that feature each individual member’s special talents as well as tunes that illustrate how well you work as a team. This strategy worked for the acoustic folk music combo. The band’s debut disc earned them a JUNO (Canada’s version of the Grammy) nomination in the 2003 Roots and Traditional Album of the Year category and helped win them a recording contract with the highly respected Americana label, Sugar Hill Records, home of Nickel Creek and Dolly Parton’s bluegrass efforts. Sugar Hill quickly helped them tour and even had The Duhks open the label’s 2004 showcase at South by Southwest on a bill that included Allison Moorer, Mindy Smith, and Grey DeLisle. The Duhks next CD won them lots of kudos while they continued to tour and hit the most celebrated folk festivals on the circuit, like Telluride and Merlefest.
Until now, The Duhks Canadian debut CD, Your Daughters and Your Sons, couldn’t be purchased in the United States unless a person bought it at a show or ordered it over the Internet directly from the band’s website. But Sugar Hill has given the debut disc a proper US release while the group works on its next studio recording, scheduled for a fall release. Your Daughters and Your Sons reveals The Duhks’ considerable musical gifts and the challenges its members face in combining different styles and genres.
Only four of the current five-member outfit were in the original band and perform on the disc. They play mostly traditional Celtic, French Canadian, and Old Time country tunes, a few borrowed contemporary songs, and some fine self-penned instrumental tracks. The most distinctive element of The Duhks’ sound is found in clawhammer banjoist Leonard Podalak’s propulsive plucking trading licks with swooping fiddler Tania Elizabeth. For example, the two wrote a rollicking three-song medley, “Guiliano’s Tune / Something / Eleanor’s Day #2”, that bounces back and forth from beginning to end with pleasurable momentum.
Acoustic guitarist Jordan McConnell tends to take a quieter approach. He and Elizabeth composed and play a lovely slow piece named “The Seine River Waltz” that gently flows from the strings to the heart. Lead singer Jessica Harvey’s voice bespeaks a rustic comfort. She never strains for a note. Harvey subtly croons about meeting her heavenly reward on The Duhks’ cover of the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings gospel-tinged “Rock of Ages”. The inevitable coming of death and the afterlife are a certainty. There is no need for the narrator to get excited.
The album does have a few missteps. There are places where the band’s ambitious attempts to fuse music together doesn’t quite fit or where they highlight aspects of their instrumental talents to the detriment of the material. The Duhks’ version of the Woody Guthrie classic “Pretty Boy Floyd” tagged with the traditional bluegrass tune “Stoney Point” proves a good example of this. To the detriment of the lyrics, the band speeds up the melody of Guthrie’s tale of an outlaw with a conscious. The great denouement in which Floyd declares “Some will rob you with their six gun / and some with a fountain pen / but you’ll never see no outlaw / drive a family from its home” gets lost in the tangle of strings that continues aimlessly for about another minute and a half. The instrumentalists don’t need to show off on every tune. They should let a song as fine as this just speak for itself without excess ornamentation.
Fortunately, The Duhks don’t make this mistake very often. The band superbly performs a host of romantic ballads, such as “The Trooper and The Maid” and “Le Menieur et la Jeune Fille”, topical folk songs like “Bantry Girl’s Lament” and the title track, and several virtuoso instrumentals. Their debut disc deservedly brought The Duhks to the attention of a larger audience. Now they are a well-known presence on the folk music scene, and Your Daughters and Your Sons provides an enjoyable look back at the band it once was.