Vulnerable country rockers' cautionary tales of love
Reviewed by Bernard Zuel
September 16, 2009
THE DUKE & THE KING
Nothing Gold Can Stay (Chapel/Shock)
Draw the Line (Universal)
Simone Felice, the main half of the Duke & the King, and David Gray seemingly inhabit completely different worlds. Gray, the Mancunian whose late-arriving career turning point, White Ladder, sold by the bucketload at the turn of the century, is mainstream pop radio. His songs get played on love song requests and accompany tearful breakups.
Felice, from the Catskills in upstate New York, is the drummer in the family band the Felice Brothers, and an occasional visitor to alternative or roots radio. His songs get played by music critics who still have a hankering for the Band.
But play these two albums side by side and the similarities start to line up. The reasons why one is likely to be in your face at every wine bar over the next year, while the other slips away unnoticed, don't make much sense.
The comparison is not necessarily in quality, but more on that later.
Sure, Gray has a more studio-processed sound and pop feel, while Felice sounds like he may well have recorded this album in "Big Pink", the house where Dylan and the Band hibernated. And he doesn't mind some mild psychedelic flavourings to the more country-rock shapes. However, there is a shared, slightly quavering, tenor, a common vulnerability in tone, a preference for tales more cautionary than celebratory, a tendency towards the slower end of mid-tempo and a direct connection to singer-songwriters of the 1970s, such as James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Jackson Browne. This isn't hard-to-reach music; it's as easy to grasp as it is on the ears.
Where their paths diverge most markedly is in the depth of songwriting. Gray is ordered and professional. His music aims towards, while never actually reaching, some kind of emotional catharsis; his lyrics have just enough of the personal to make it sound as if it could be any man or everyman; his voice emoting ever so.
Felice, on the other hand, never seems to be trying too hard to convince you. He leaves that to the truthfulness of wistful songs such as If You Ever Get Famous, rugged tales such as the street survival of Union Street, sharp lines such as “Jesus walked on the water but so did Marvin Gaye” and a voice that takes you along with it rather than pointing out the way.
Yeah, David Gray can write a song. But Simone Felice is a s