Friday, November 12, 2010

Duncan Sheik - S/T (1996)

Ah, American singer-songwriters. Yammering in their half hoarse voices about broken dreams and equally fucked relationships and subsequently usually failing to get radio play unless they can play something half memorable for the casual traveler in all of us. Most would-be pariahs bore the shit out of me under normal circumstances, but every once in awhile I get hit square in the cardiac by a bogey and wonder where X person has been all my musical life.

Duncan Sheik is one such individual, a guy who happened to do quite well for himself in the late 90's and continues to write and record to this day. He's a Buddhist guitar maestro with an earnest voice who resembles a theoretical progenital son of Rob Lowe and John Cusack (except extra pale). Musically, he comes across in his songwriting as the distinct hybrid between the college rock of Edwin McCain and R.E.M. and the barren near-baroque mystique of 70's legends Nick Drake and John Martyn. Hence, our boy Sheik is therefore rather interesting from the point-of-view of a music enthusiast like me: he keeps one foot in the door for the folk-pop-alt. rock radio crowd while still managing to stay poignant lyrically and inventive in his melodies and arrangement craft. And in the game of seeing who stands the test of time and who doesn't 15 years later, inventive melodies and style are the only things that mean a damn thing.

Two songs may be familiar to those who actually listened to radio back in 1996-1997: the introspective 'She Runs Away' and ironically upbeat 'Barely Breathing'. The latter of these two was a smash hit in particular and probably immortalized him in the minds of a generally apathetic and ignorant public. In my opinion though, Sheik is at his best when he loses the alt. rock angstiness and simply lets the ambiance flesh out the emotions. 'Days Go By' and 'November' in particular are quite strong, reminiscent of Colin Blunstone in their lush strings and seemingly infinite empathy for the human heart and all its longing and contradiction. Beyond that, there's a healthy dose of straight up folk ['Little Hands'] and some punchy low-key West Coast numbers to finish out these unforgettable 52 minutes in style ['Serena', 'The End of The Outside'].

Long story short - I'm quite critical of singer-songwriters and their pretensions. Not too many of them ever leave a strong impression on me because I don't consider heartfelt or even "brilliant" lyrics to be the core of interesting or memorable songwriting. Hell, if great lyrics were the only listening criteria that was paramount, then people wouldn't need anything but Van Der Graaf Generator and The Smiths. However, Sheik manages to not only juggle a variety of styles, but possesses an attractive ambiance and charisma to carry the 11 songs present here with flash and subtle panache, and that's what makes this bastard's music worth your time.

Listen Here - "November"

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