Dare Dukes: Thugs and China Dolls

Say what you will about folk, the auties was a fantastically ripe time for the genre. Devendra Banhart and his weird movement cohorts, the outstanding success of the Saddle Creek label, and artists like David Dondero broke a lot of ground for the folk, singer/song writer deliverance. The new decade is proving to be just as promising and there’s been something of a critical response that means musicians no longer carry the same old weight admitting they play it, nor the fans that they listen. Gone ye are the days of Dylan and Simon and Young, powerhouses they might have been they were relevant only to their time and place. The genre has evolved beyond the individual, beyond some clichéd everyman movement, beyond even the confines of poetry and finger picking. You see, it’s grown up, it’s sophisticated, and nothing defines the medium better than Dare DukesThugs and China Dolls. And nothing could be more current, the album drops today.
As the title dictates, Thugs and China Dolls is resplendent with contrast. Picture this: A comfortable 68 degrees in January, the soft glint of a setting sun as seen through a southern smog, the promise of youth, the violence of poverty, a spaghetti loop of endless sprawl populated by beautiful young women and rich young men, the imagery playing out against the most subdued piano melody while a voice to send ghosts clattering up your spine sings softly, sweetly ‘Tell them to fuck off and go to hell.’
Thugs and China Dolls is a slice of everything twenty-somethings can’t articulate. In this age of instantaneous media, of sound bites and cynicism, it’s the strangest thing to collide against a medium you cannot immediately frame into an agenda, an angle of some sort. It’s best and easiest to assume we’ve heard it all, when even those things we don’t understand have something comparable into which we can lump the sum. Dare Dukes defies this, and perhaps you as well.
Although the premier track, “Old West Broad” is alluring in its offerings of dreamy escapism, the remainder of the Thugs and China Doll’s isn’t so easy to mine. And I use that reference deliberately, because listening to the album requires one to break through layer after layer. It can be work, but of the variety that delivers a wealth of rarities. The tracks are wonderfully constructed in atypical format, using the banjo and accordion to great effect as rhythmic instruments while avoiding the common 4/4, three chord, verse chorus verse chorus assimilation.
I really don’t want to say too much, and I don’t want to compare Mr. Dukes’ sound to anything you’ve heard before, but it makes me think of Eric Bachmann from Archers of Loaf fronting the Decemberists. It’s a mashup, to say the least, but with help from friends in acts like Of Montreal, TV on the Radio, and the Modern Skirts his sound works, whatever it may be.
Thugs and China Dolls is smart, and it supposes you’re smart too. This is one of the greatest compliments an artist can pay the audience. Rather than merely entertain you, the album takes on the form of a conversation, there’s give and take, an exchange and at times, an argument. With lyrics including gems such as bureaucrat, crescendo, unadorned, adjacent, betwixt, and plexiglass, (yeah, try and work any of those into a coherent rhyme scheme) his presence can be intimidating. This alone speaks volumes for Mr. Dukes, and when he strings those words together the themes can be quite striking.
Dare Dukes is definitely not for everyone, and when consuming the album there are certain tracks that lag and even sections of certain tracks that grate, but from the strong opening of “Old West Broad” the musical landscape follows a high plateau through “Lament of the Subway Rider” to an intriguing let-me-down-gently finish with “Mighty Love.” I’m not guaranteeing your friends will like Thugs and China Dolls, but you will.
Rating: 9.0/10
MP3: Dare Dukes “Thugs and China Dolls”
Buy: iTunes

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