wears the trousers magazine


the dutchess & the duke: sunset/sunrise (2009)
November 5, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: ,

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The Dutchess & The Duke
Sunset/Sunrise •••½
Hardly Art

Seattle-based folk duo The Dutchess & The Duke first came to light last year with their overwhelmingly well-received debut She’s The Dutchess & He’s The Duke. Their particular brand of raucous, gritty folk-rock swagger caused music critics to giddily spew accolades – including a highly respectable 8.1 from famously harsh music behemoth Pitchfork – and resulted in a tour with folk giants Fleet Foxes. On their second album, however, their whiskey soaked blues are swapped for something altogether more sobering. Sunset/Sunrise was apparently influenced by newlywed Duke Jesse Lortz’s acclimatisation to domesticity, but if you’re expecting a twee, simpering, ’50s-style album revelling in the joys of domestic bliss, prepare to look elsewhere. A deep sense of loneliness and regret infuses Sunset/Sunrise, giving it the weighty air of an exercise in how the greatest expression of love can sometimes leave you lonelier than before. Or, put simply: trouble in paradise.

The album opens on a distinctly downbeat note on the waltzing ‘Hands’, which finds Lortz intoning “Sun comes up / I’m counting the days I’ve got left” like a particularly depressed Bill Callahan. Like most of the songs on Sunset/Sunrise, ‘Hands’ is deceptively simple, its warm, strummed guitar melody and Lortz’s smooth, smoky croon veiling an undercurrent of unfaithfulness and the sense of abandonment it can bring. Elsewhere, the simplistic joy of their debut has been replaced with a hardened cynicism; on ‘Scorpio’, Lortz and Dutchess Kimberly Morrison sing anodyne lyrics like “I feel good, I feel fine / the sky is blue, the sun is shining” in possibly the most pessimistic drone they can muster while funeral strings waltz dizzily around them. Their fake grimaces may be almost visible, but their harmonies are heavenly, their voices interweaving enviably.

Indeed, with so much of the focus on Lortz, it’s easy to forget that The Dutchess & The Duke are a duo. But respect must be paid to his counterpart, for Morrison is in possession of lush, rich, cascading vocals, and her forlorn croak transcends Lortz’s pained wail perfectly. However, she proves she is far more than just a backing singer and earns her co-credit with distinction on album highlight ‘When You Leave My Arms’, just one of the tracks which encapsulate the album’s eerie marriage of the sweet and the sinister. Morrison’s coos of “I know where you go; I know what you’re after”, set against thunderous drums, are downright spooky. And again, the impending threat of infidelity bleeds into the lyrics: “I know she holds you tightly and you say the same things to her that you say to me,” she moans on the same track.

Sunset/Sunrise may not have the happy-go-lucky, rootsy appeal of its predecessor, but it does have a distinct dissonance possessed by few folk acts of The Dutchess & The Duke’s pedigree. The juxtaposition between their sombre, grave lyrics and their warm, folky instrumentation may not make it a particularly easy listen, but it’s certainly a rewarding one. This contrast is perhaps best exemplified on the unsettling ‘Let It Die’, in which the rushing, tumbling folk melody jars with the song’s disturbing narrative; Lortz tells the tale of a husband trapped in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife, dreaming of escape. Lortz is not a man to mince his words, and his stark lyrical economy only serves to highlight the tangible sense of unease pervading this record: “I don’t wanna be here no more / I don’t wanna be here no more,” he sings on ‘Let It Die’, and you know he means it.

The Dutchess & The Duke are the kind of band that leaves you begging for a back story, an explanation as to what kind of emotional fissures could have produced such incessant melancholy. And it really is incessant. But while Lortz and Morrison may have dumped their Beach Boys-influenced sunshine in favour of a Southern Gothic twilight, they haven’t quite thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Sunset/Sunrise may be unsettling, but perseverance reveals a work of great depth.

Katherine Rodgers
UK release date: 22/11/09; www.myspace.com/thedutchessandtheduke

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