The Duke Spirit are in danger of becoming the perennial also-rans of British indie. For a while now the beneficiaries of press that is positive but rarely rapturous, the fivesome are far from objectionable enough to inspire distaste, but insufficiently idiosyncratic to stir up much adoration. Their debut album, Cuts Across the Land, was solid enough, but bore an undeniable debt to the band’s influences — the likes of the Stones, PJ Harvey, and the Jesus and Mary Chain — its critical reception toeing the line between highlighting this lineage and pawing over frontwoman Leila Moss, herself the recipient of so many Blondie comparisons she opted to dye her hair brown.
So there’ll be those hoping that this follow-up release will be the Duke Spirit’s timely coming-of-age, an album to dispel the hegemony of comparisons and likenesses in their press coverage and establish the band’s persona as standalone and individualistic. In that respect, Neptune is a step in the right direction. It’s clearer and more cohesive than its predecessor, coming across as focused rather than a slapdash collage of influences. In addition, it doesn’t rely so solely on Moss’s charms to make its mark, owing in part to a cleaner, more advanced instrumental section, as well a more finely tuned style-substance balance. They’ve still got a swagger, yes, but without — or so it feels — any condescending notions of epitomising cool.
But in truth the main reason Neptune pleases more than Cuts is simply that, in songwriting terms, the Duke Spirit have evolved into something more measured and mature than before. There’s a little of their debut’s rawness that’s been sacrificed in the process, but with the end product sounding so much more considered, it’s hard to feel that it wasn’t a sacrifice worth making. Most of its offerings scratch an itch that their debut didn’t reach. “You Really Wake Up the Love in Me” transcends its riff-rock origins to throw around vocal melodies with equal measures of vigour and precision, while, taking a mellower tack, “Wooden Heart” remembers to instil its bluesy sighing with a neat vocal-trumpet pairing. “My Sunken Treasure”, for all its jangling echoes of ’70s soul, is just a really good pop song. Even on “Into the Fold”, perhaps the closest Neptune comes to continuing where Cuts left off, splashing as it does fuzzy My Bloody Valentine guitars over fairly routine garage-rock, there is a dynamic chorus line waiting to drive some opportune life into it.
Despite this, Neptune fails to scale the peaks you feel it potentially could. Though it does scratch that itch, there’s too much time spent searching for the elusive spot before the satisfying exhalation; too much effort spent treading water rather than reaching the hooks and the heights the Duke Spirit elsewhere show themselves to be capable of. “The Step and the Walk” promises sass and soul, duly delivers both within forty seconds, then fails to build on these foundations, offering only a relatively meek chorus from thereon. Likewise, “Dog Roses”, a smoky western ballad (one of several of Neptune‘s cuts to be audibly influenced by the Californian desert in which it was recorded), fails to produce anything good enough to accompany Olly Betts’s percussive ellipses.
Neptune, then, fares better than its predecessor, both in terms of songwriting and in escaping the looming shadow of its ancestry. But while it’s clear that the Duke Spirit have attempted to escape the latter — and largely, have succeeded — what isn’t so apparent is that they aren’t just resting on the laurels of Moss’s persuasive hip-shake and wounded howl. There’s a more defined sound about their sophomore than to their debut, but in opting to clear up the blurred focus and smooth the edges of Cuts, they also instilled in their music a thirst for hooks and melodies which they don’t always provide. And that’s not to say they’re not capable of satiating this need, but if they are to truly make their mark on music, their third album had better be a little less languid.