The Dutchess and the Duke




    In an interview late last year, Kimberly Morrison (she being the Dutchess) said, “There’s only so many times you can do the same song in slightly different ways before you just want to do something else.” She was speaking of her band’s punk roots — Morrison and her Duke cohort (Jesse Lortz) did time in various Seattle punk bands before teaming up a few years ago — but she could also be alluding to her present. After all, the Dutchess and the Duke’s debut was a distinct song cycle featuring variations on the same themes, musical or otherwise: The tunes were kept short, dark, spare, and were heavily indebted to mid-1960s pop and folk. So what are we to gather from this quote? That Sunset/Sunrise is their prog-rap “experimental” album? Thankfully, no. It’s actually more of the same — and that’s hardly an insult.
    Lortz and Morrison seem content to stay with that classic sound, and Sunset/Sunrise picks up where She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke left off. “Sun comes up/ I’m counting the days I got left/ I’m counting the time on my hands, watch the days roll by,” Lortz wryly intones on album opener (and absolute earworm) “Hands.” It’s the most interesting song Lortz has written, veering from Spanish-tinged acoustic arpeggios into a bluesy fury in 6/8 time, all fueled by a heady mix of organ, electric guitar, and barebones percussion.
    The expanded palette is courtesy of producer Greg Ashley (of Gris Gris fame). He adds strings, piano, and multi-tracked harmonies, but it’s his economy of sound that’s the most striking. The songwriting is still front and center, with a certain grittiness left intact by the analog recording. “Living This Life,” with its insistent guitar riff and accidental police siren in the background, has a swaying charm that’s driven home by the Dutchess/Duke harmonies. Their voices fit together perfectly — Lortz’s rough, world-weary moan to Morrison’s smoky, pleading croon. The sound is cinematic in its simplicity and subtlety. The deep minor-key groans on “Sunrise/Sunset”; the competing guitars on “Never Had A Chance” mimicking the diverging paths of the song’s two lovers; the sighing violins on “Scorpio” adding Ennio Morricone-like noir to a bone-dry lament. However, the darkness wears a little thin by album’s end. It feels long despite its half-hour length, especially during the late misfire, “When You Leave My Arms,” a trifecta of so-so songwriting, Morrison’s weak lead vocals, and Ashley’s overproduction.
    Still, the Dutchess and the Duke lend such conviction and humanity to these songs that it’s hard not to like them, even with their occasional missteps. The music is unflinching (and refreshing) in its directness; these are simple songs that rise above being merely odes to their obvious source material. Much like the album cover, this duo finds enough beauty and light in the darkest of places to create a fully realized world, one that’s worth immersing yourself in.