It feels like such a jerk move to have an album this good, and still give it a score as mediocre as this. But I have been listening to it off and on for more than a month — and if you have ever listened to any of the Duhks previous six albums, released every couple of years,mostly in time for folk festival season, you know exactly what to expect, and a critic is not going to convince you about its value one way or another. This is a Duhks album. The Duhks know how to play their instruments. They are so good at playing their instruments that they don’t do anything much else.
Expecting musicians to do anything beyond play their instruments, or getting sad about a band playing instruments well, again is a bit of a problem. It perhaps expects more than it is reasonable to. To be clear here: I don’t expect dancing, or fireworks or a stage show with an elevating floor. I don’t expect them to be anything more than they are capable of — and they are capable of being clear, clean, precise, and much too delicate for the lyrics that they are delivering.
Thinking about all of the other folk artists of the last few years — the ones that run the circuit, the ones that know their shit, the ones that clawhammer the banjo and play solid percussion, who sing deep or high, those who listen to the Folkways records and who pay close attention to the past revivals and pay less attention to whatever revival we are on — there are a bunch who provide something more than playing their instruments, even if they play their instrument really well. (For instance: Frank Fairfield’s slightly flat voice, Clifton Hicks’ politics, the Carolina Chocolate Drops tightening and flattening of history, Valerie June’s self-conscious local history, the Avett Brothers fraternal relationship to Jesus, Laura Marling’s refusing to fully absorb Ireland while still being Irish, etc.)
There is no reason to hate this, though. There is a song here, Suffer No Fools, where they sing, “She don’t suffer no fools anymore / Now she knows that’s not what her sweet time is for.” The track continues: “Hold onto those who strengthen and cherish your heart” and then asks the listener to “make a promise to stay true to what you are are” — thus resting on lines about abandoning the whirlwind and the steadiness of a small, slow growth. It’s easy to say no to people who are idiots, easy to reject those who are doing active damage, and one can never force love. Not hanging around with the selfish and cruel — that’s also a brilliant idea.
But music is not supposed to be this safe. It is supposed to be one of the things, because music is all sorts of things, but there is something prescriptive in that song, and a prescription that suggests all kinds of things that are exciting — moving away from one idea of identity, or refusing stability, or any kind of risk, is less worthy. That the next song is about a burning heart that is supposed to “teach his heart to sing”, but whose banjos and guitars barely reach a simmer, suggest that the Duhks are still incapable of doing serious damage. (The song “Banjo Roustabout”, which is quite docile, suffers the same problem. Not that a song about wandering cannot be quiet or soft — Tom Paxton’s Rambling Boy, so soft, formally gorgeous, and quite didactic, makes explicit choices against flaming rawness but make a choice that does not have folk revival set automatically like the rhumba setting on a casio.)
I keep thinking that they must know they are doing, but its more and more of a collection of bad choices — too much production, no matter how soft on “Black Mountain Lullaby”, which would be well served by being a capella. There is the instrumental track “Twnderhoning”, which hints at being a reel, but would be impossible to dance to, as it is a bit too slow and slightly off plumb — which is sad, because being from Winnipeg, they should know how to construct reels. There is the agrarian fantasy “Lazy John”, which is as moralist as one of Wendell Berry’s worst field songs, and I guess is a bit of a work song but doesn’t commit to a solid beat (and whose lack of commitment seems accidental than reinforcing the theme).
There are also moments of great fun — the tambourine and moaning voices on “You’ll Go East, I’ll Go West is fantastic, “Just One Step” is a solid gospel rave up, and as I have said before, the instrumentation is always technically very good, with the possibility of being technically brilliant. But there is no real reason why it exists — no real sense of why the choices were made, not much to differentiate them, and it doesn’t matter, because Duhks fans will buy them and see them live, think them profound, and move forward when they have to.
These are all valid reasons to listen to an album, and there are enough good reasons to listen to this album. I don’t want to disparage the effort, but there is not enough to recommend them.