Usually I, as most music reviewers are wont to do, would start off with an all-encompassing introductory paragraph on the state of music, the history of a genre, or some kind of wraparound story. For this review, I am compelled to simply cut to the chase. The Duke Spirit will rock your knickers off. There, I’ve said it. Cuts Across the Land, the debut full-length album from the London foursome, is simply put, down and dirty brilliant rock and roll. It crackles with electricity, charges with raw power, and captivates your body, forcing it to move in ways completely against your will.
The Duke Spirit take the blues rock made famous by the Rolling Stones, the arty rock put out by the Velvet Underground, add in some flourishes from acolytes the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, and then put Liela Moss in front of it all and let her rip. Moss is like Blondie in a world without disco, allowing blues and punk to collide in an energetic, angry, and menacing combination. The difference, of course, is that with Moss, you want to be menaced. Her vocal assault will leave you reeling in absolute rock and roll hedonism. Without pretension or sheen, posturing or posing, the Duke Spirit embody the true meaning of rock and roll: playing blues heavy riffs, playing them loud, and driving them with a fierce frontperson.
From the very start of the album, the title track opener, the band grabs you by the short `n’ curlies, and they never let go. Guitars grind and sustain over driving drum beats, sometimes buzzsawing, other times wailing with abandon, and still other times echoing single lonely notes. “Darlin, You’re Mean” and “Hello to the Floor” slow the tempo down some, but not the ferocity as Moss’ voice maintains its vicious intensity, for instance when she says, “Jesus Christ, it’s driving me mad.” You’re torn, because you can’t remove yourself, but you really don’t want to be on the receiving end of Moss’ tirade. “Hello to the Floor” shares some of the same bluesy intensity as some of U2’s peak performances in the late ’80s. “Win Your Love” has as much raw sexual fury as some of P.J. Harvey’s early work.
“Bottom of the Sea” replaces Grace Slick’s weed stash with crystal meth, while “You Were Born Inside My Heart” gives that bag of grass to Echo & the Bunnymen. Moss truly shines in “Love is an Unfamiliar Name” as she talks / sings her way through the verses with a thick and sexy accent before the vocal effects kick in as the volume increases. The tension builds as the song progresses, with every verse and chorus upping the ante. At about two and a half minutes in, when Moss begins to “oooo” and the guitars begin their swirling attack, there is some kind of magic in the air. Moss’ voice captures some of the same driving force that could be found in Merry Clayton’s vocals on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Yes, that’s how powerful this stuff is.
Maybe it’s the 18th century woodcut engravings on their covers, and maybe further the fact that the Duke Spirit don’t quite fit in with the `new’ new wave bands that are glutting the airwaves, but this truly astonishing band has struggled the past few years to get recognized. The US release of Cuts Across the Land took a whopping year and a half to see the light of day after its UK debut. With every listen to the album, I stand more and more shocked (this album won’t let you sit); shocked at not only the utter lack or delay of response to this rock and roll powerhouse, but also at the idea that I enjoy it more with each spin. The Duke Spirit may not be, as many critics are apt to say, “out to save rock and roll,” but they are giving it CPR, electroshock therapy and an adrenalin shot to the heart, prolonging its life for another few years. Who says a rolling stone gathers no Moss?