Album Review: Duke Special – The Stage, A Book, & the Silver Screen

By on Tuesday, 23rd February 2010 at 12:00 pm

Talented Irish singer-songwriter Duke Special (real name Peter Wilson) has amassed quite a following with his previous albums ‘Songs from the Deep Forest’ and ‘I Never Thought This Day Would Come.’ In fact, when he created a Pledge Music account to raise money for his latest project, he far exceeded his goal. On 8th March 2010, Special will not only release a new album, he will release three! When combined together into a 3-CD set, they are referred to as ‘The Stage, A Book & the Silver Screen,’ but each of the 3 discs has a different purpose and a different sound. Writing and performing songs for musicals goes well with Special’s theatrical tendencies, so the result is something truly special (pardon the pun) that is well worth a listen.

The first disc, ‘Mother Courage and Her Children,’ contains studio versions of the songs Special wrote (with German dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s words) for the recent production of the famous anti-war play Mother Courage & Her Children at the National Theatre in London. Duke performed these songs on stage between September and December of last year. Not surprisingly, this album is the most theatrical of the three, with powerful vocals and dramatic music, complete with horns and strings. One of the highlights of the album is ‘Eilif (Song About the Soldier and His Wife),’ a song whose playful sound stands in stark contrast to it’s subject matter. Listening to the music alone, you wouldn’t expect to hear lyrics like “off goes her man / he will write when he can / and women have wept since the world first began” and “how quickly you’ll fall / oh God, help us all / a soldier should never get married.”

The album has some subdued moments which go along with the play’s subject matter, but Special really shines in the more upbeat sounding tracks, like ‘The Great Capitulation’ and ‘The Soldiers Song,’ a short number which combines lyrics like “Your tits, girls, show ’em fast / A soldier’s heart is vast / but please don’t tell the pastor” and “your prayers, good priest, and fast / a soldier’s die is cast / he’s mincemeat for his Master,” showing the daily contradictions of a soldier’s life. While the album is short at a mere 36 minutes, it’s so packed with drama and intensity that the audience probably couldn’t handle any more.

The second disc is an EP entitled ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ which is the first ever recording of the 5 songs which comprise an unfinished musical by Kurt Weil based on the novel by Mark Twain of the same name. Where ‘Mother Courage’ was more theatrical and dramatic, this EP is mostly folksy and lighthearted. Opening track ‘River Chanty’ is Huck’s ode to the Mississippi River, with lyrics like “Who you been stealin’ from, river? / Who you been friendin’ today? / What you been bringin’ me river, river? / What you been takin’ away?”. Third track ‘Apple Jack,’ is a playful retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, replacing the apple in the story with apple jack, a very strong alcoholic beverage made from apples. When he slips into the serpent’s voice, Special uses a raspy whisper, which is as creepy as it is funny, and simply perfect for the track. The adorable ‘Catfish Song’ is a duet between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer about fishing, with lyrics like “Oh two hungry friends are we /oh you are a noble fish / Oh hark to this desperate plea / Fill up our empty dish.” At only 15 minutes long, you’re left wanting more, so it’s a shame Weil never finished his musical!

The third is a collection of songs inspried by Paul Auster’s Novel The Book of Illusions, entitled ‘The Silent World of Hector Mann’. The novel follows the story of David Zimmer, who after tragically losing his wife and children in a plane crash, becomes fascinated by the silent comedies of Hector Mann, an actor missing since the 1920s, and decides to write a book about him. The publishing of the book leads him to be invited to Mann’s home, where he not only sees Mann’s unreleased films, but finds solace in the connections between his life’s story and Hector’s and finally begins to heal.

The songs on this album are all written by Duke Special and his friends, including Neil Hannon, Matt Hales and Ed Harcourt. While it’s the only disc of the three that isn’t meant for the stage, it still has the feeling of a musical, mostly due to it’s theatricality and the storytelling style of the songs. The old-timey ‘Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club’ and the dancey ‘Tango Tangle’ are a lot of fun and are certainly two of my favorites on the album. ‘Country Weekend’ is a folksy, midtempo track about a chauffeur who is in love with the person he is driving, singing “You probably never noticed / I’ve loved you from afar / I am awkward, coy and nervous / when you’re travelling in my car”. There is even a slow waltz called ‘Old Folks and Cow Pokes,’ which focuses on Zimmer missing his wife, singing “I am checking the view /for old folks and cow pokes / and hoping for a glimmer of you”. In the final track, ‘Teller’s Tale’, he sings the refrain “Oh, set your burden down, my love” over piano and brings the album to a simple, beautiful resolution, just as in the novel, the protagonist reaches resolution. Even only knowing the most basic plot of the book, the album is very enjoyable. I can only think how much more you can get out of it if you read the whole thing.

Overall, for three albums taking inspiration from unconnected and unusual places, Special has pulled off the seemingly impossible. Not only are each of the albums thoroughly enjoyable and listenable, but they work together as a set. Bravo, Duke Special!

‘The Stage, A Book, & the Silver Screen’ will be released on 8th March 2010 on Reel to Reel records and can be pre-ordered now.

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