When a band’s debut album is given high marks by the typically hard-to-please Pitchfork review crew, people take notice. Call it the Simon Cowell effect. The Seattle-based duo The Dutchess and The Duke was given such positive notice in 2008 for their freshman album She’s The Dutchess, He’s The Duke. Filled with songs influenced by The Beach Boys, Stones and Kinks, the album has the vibe of the 60s and 70s—the music they love.
Just a year later, Jesse Lortz and Kimberly Morrison now add Sunrise/Sunset to The Dutchess and The Duke’s catalog. Far from being just another ten songs that didn’t make She’s The Dutchess, their sophomore offering adds new sounds thanks to the use of piano, organ, strings and drums. And while this new step in instrumentation brings with it some optimistic, joyful sounds, the lyrics create tension with the melodies by being dark and introspective.
This tension likely comes from the experiences Lortz and Morrison where having while writing. During the time between albums, they watched a close friend die, and Lortz’s son was born. On the track “Let It Die,” upbeat, lighthearted notes are met head-on with honest, difficult lyrics about the mix of excitement and fear that a newborn child brings into the life of his parents. Lortz sings,
In the bed my woman lies sweetly
With a love that I just can't see.
Inside there's a little child now
With a heart and soul that's free.
He then confesses in the refrain,
Let it die and I’ll keep what’s left of me.
I don’t wanna be here no more.
Life is like this. Extreme joy may be felt in one part of our lifes, but it is almost always tempered by the sadness or fear that is filling other parts of who we are. Thankfully, the opposite is also true. The Dutchess and The Duke create music that isn’t simply about life; their art also, thanks to the paradox between their lyrics and sounds, actually mirrors the experience of life itself: light and darkness, excitement and fear, joy and pain. This brand of honesty is one of the high points of their music—not every artist bares his or her soul in this way.
The albums are far from over-produced. Each one was written and recorded over short periods of time (around a week), so they intentionally sound gritty and lo-fi. For The Dutchess and The Duke there is something more important than having a musical masterpiece. As Morrison puts it, “It's more about the emotion involved than the right notes.” “Mary,” the seventh track on She’s The Dutchess, is a good example of this attitude toward song writing. Emotive lyrics, seemingly written to his mother, are delivered with harmonies that sound flat and lackadaisical.
Is a commitment to the emotional aspects of a song license to perform the song without concern for the vocals? I’m not sure it is. But it is also important to keep some distance between the critique of a song and the performance of it. Lortz and Morrison seem to understand themselves as songwriters first and performers second. Whether or not their vocals blow you away, The Dutchess and The Duke have great songs about life. Thus, great songs that convey the complexity of the human experience will fill the Ladies Literary Club on January 14.
- Eric Kuiper