Two years ago, I was privileged enough to be the one to review the Duke Spirit’s Cuts Across the Land. With a huge critical reception the year before its release in 2005 and a lot of buzz without a lot of advertising made me think that the Duke Spirit were going to take the rock world by storm. Not to mention the actual debut album was aces. But that didn’t quite happen. Instead, the Duke Spirit somewhat disappeared. Luckily, they hadn’t vanished altogether as I was heartened to hear they were making a triumphant return in 2008 with Neptune. I immediately made the request to review the album, and was not disappointed.
Those who know my reviews know that I am fascinated by band monikers. Whether great, horrible, stupid, trendy or otherwise, I love dissecting a band name. After all, just what is the Duke Spirit? Does it have to do with an actual member of nobility, that highest rank below king and queen? Or does it have to do with the Thin White one, Mr. Bowie? Or perhaps, Mr. Ellington? Probably not. How about John Wayne? Although at first I thought it unlikely, now I find the latter somewhat fits. First of all, bassist Toby Butler says that he wanted a band name like Primal Scream or Sonic Youth, something with `attitude and swagger,’ and really, who has more attitude and swagger than John Wayne? On top of that, this new record, Neptune, though heavily water-textual, was produced by Chris Goss, he who makes the `desert / stoner rock’ of Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss and Masters of Reality, and recorded in Joshua Tree, a place that could stage many a John Wayne western. And while another famous band from the British Isles may not have `found what they were looking for’ in the same area, the Duke Spirit definitely did, a kick ass stoner / ’60s / Britpop / rock / blues album that doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids on the playground.
While everyone else seems to be ripping off Joy Division, Echo or the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Duke Spirit are again blazing their own path with a driving blues and a fiery frontwoman that can’t be ignored. Liela Moss has a voice that was simply built for rock and roll. The proof is in the debut single, “The Step and the Walk.” Take a look at the video, it’ll be easy to find. What you’ll see is the most stunning combination of hotness and vocal power since Stevie Nicks. The background “oooh’s” and the menacing bassline, as well as the catchy chorus of “without joy, joy, joy in the rain,” make “The Step and the Walk” a definite head-turner. “Dog Roses” recalls the dramatic ominous and brooding feeling of Nick Cave’s best work. “Wooden Heart” is a fantastic track, sounding a bit like early Velvet Underground, and maybe Grace Slick in parts, though with a decidedly Britpop bent. Though, as there was “joy in the rain” in “The Step and the Walk,” the “rainclouds are angry” in “Wooden Heart.” The slow build-up and sultry vocals lull you into a trance that you never want to end.
Sure, there are a few songs on Neptune that seem like Chris Goss staples, such as “Send a Little Love Token” or “Into the Fold,” both of which sound like they could be refugees from a QOTSA album, but for the most part, songs are varied enough to keep listeners both interested and impressed. Take for instance, “My Sunken Treasure,” a song that relies on a ’50s girl group vibe that could give a certain rehab attendee a run for her money. And frankly, I’d rather listen to the Duke Spirit, any day. “Lassoo” and “This Ship Was Built To Last” are definite standouts, with a definite mix of mid ’90s British pop and the threatening blues sounds that the Spirit and `the Goss’ blend together, recalling one of my favorite bands, Echobelly. Though, Moss’ vocal gifts are less `cute’ and more brash and confident.
There are two equally ferocious forces at work in the Duke Spirit, the powerhouse vocals of Liela Moss, and the bluesy stoner rock that the band behind her wallops with you with as she sings. There is nothing simple about the Duke Spirit, whether their paradoxical `water album’ recorded in the desert, their gorgeous singer who could floor you with her voice alone, or their complete distance from `the norm’ of British music today. But it is in those complexities that the Duke Spirit find their `attitude and swagger,’ making them a force to be reckoned with. While they may be a forceful rock band on the surface, their songs also have a catchiness to them that make them entirely pop accessible. How’s that for complexity? And while they can be hard, songs like the closer, “Sovereign,” prove they have a delicate side as well. I’m hoping they don’t disappear again for another two years, though if they resurface with another album like Neptune, it’ll be worth it.
Queens of the Stone Age- Songs for the Deaf
P.J. Harvey- Dry
Video: “The Step and the Walk”