It’s often said that people can be judged by the company by the company they keep, and indeed, if that’s the case, Duke Garwood’s earlier collaborations may offer a hint as to what he has in store. On the other hand, that earlier association also offsets the familiarity factor and keeps the music at arm’s length. That’s because Garwood is mostly known as Mark Lanegan’s collaborator on the latter’s Blues Funeral, an album that was seeped in gloomy ambiance and serious insurgency. Garwood himself can claim quite a bit of credit for helping to craft the atmospheric arrangements that graced that particular LP; indeed, as a singer and songwriter, he specializes in making music with a decidedly aloof approach. Like Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart, he creates a surly kind of sound that’s arch and unapproachable to say the very least.
Even with that air of uncertainty, Garwood’s music still boasts a genuine intrigue. Despite the fact that Garwood offers little hint about his ultimate intent, that certain reserve comes across as both dire and dramatic. Heavy Love, the fourth album to date by this London-based multi-instrumentalist, is comprised mainly of hushed, harrowing soundscapes that are frequently as subversive as they are subdued. On songs such as “Some Times”, “Snake Man” and “Roses”, Garwood creates his most ominous impression, his croaked vocals offering the sense that far too much has been left unspoken. What remains is mystery. Indeed, that dark pall hangs over the album as a whole, and even when he limbers up on the song “Suppertime in Hell” — a track that recalls the Grateful Dead in full cosmic cruising mode — that barrier remains unbroken, leaving the suspense intact. It’s not merely a matter of listening closer. Garwood is determined to keep his distance, and in the process, maintain his mystique.
However, there’s more to it than that. Although the music remains detached, a hint of emotional clarity occasionally comes through. “Honey in My Ear” is both dire and dirge-like, but beneath all the caterwaul, there seems to be an insistent plea for reconciliation. The cryptic “Hawaiian Death Ballad” belies the foreboding premise postulated by its title and adds instead an element of desperation and desire, more repressed than expressed, but still yearning nevertheless. Likewise, for all its quiet reserve, “Heavy Love” still offers the impression that Garwood’s sharing a certain ache and anxiety.
Still, even if Garwood’s feeling repressed, he’s not letting down his guard. There’s little here that could be called accessible, especially given the haunting aura that linger through it all. Garwood’s gruff demeanour is all too often unsettling; he seems so cranky sometimes that Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen might seem absolutely giddy by comparison. His is a subdued sound, one that requires the listener to lean in closer for full effect. Clearly, Heavy Love isn’t the emotional grab bag that the title suggests, but regardless, it’s an affecting effort that leaves a lingering impression.