Duke Special: Under the Dark Cloth

Duke Special Under the Dark ClothThe Duke again gets inside other people’s skin to portray the background, the lives and the images of America’s photographic pioneers in his best commission to date.

4 Stars

Label: Adventures in Gramophone
Time: 12 tracks / 44 minutes

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds some of the early pictures of photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand and approached Duke Special to collaborate on an exhibition of the museum’s pioneering photographic work.

He has always specialized in pre-rock music, as well as having a gift for telling a story with humour, yet he can also add poignancy where it is needed. The Duke agreed and spent a year working on the project by immersing himself in not just the images, but also the lives and world of the photographers.

All of these areas come out strongly in the twelve songs that resulted. Working mainly with Boo Hewerdine and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, he has created, whittled and honed these pieces into musical hi-definition images.

Stieglitz Dancing TreesThere is a beautiful filmic quality to the opening “Dancing Trees,” a piece about relationships, inspired by the Stieglitz photograph of the same name, which shows a close up of two overlapping trees.

“The ritual steps we try to remember
Movements we once had by heart
Isn’t it strange that through every season
We’ll always remain this far apart?”

There is a similar mood to “Rita De Acosta,” about a beautiful socialite,”Who never gave her heart away.”

Stieglitz Hand of manBy contrast, following each is a powerful work that brings out the orchestra’s brass. Although Pete Wilson (who is Duke Special) works in pre-rock style, these riffs thunder like a rock band. Such density and power after the lighter previous tracks blasts the listener into a world where industrialization behaves like a beast unleashed and it perfectly captures the smoky heaviness of Stieglitz’s “Hand of Man” picture from 1902.

“Spiritual America” is based on the picture of a harnessed, castrated horse and is an ironic commentary on the state of the spiritual power that had been trussed up by a materialist culture. Wilson and Hewerdine blast the young nation for leaving the poor behind as the land goes to “corporate thugs and their fat City boys / being sick on their wealth like they hadn’t a choice.” Wilson spits out the lyrics, which asks questions of what it means to be the land of the free, and calls for the unbinding of that original, truer vision of freedom:

Have we forgotten who we were and why we came here anyway?So pick up the reins and kick the spur.”

Pau lStrand Winter central parkMaintaining the rise and fall of the mood, the gentle tone of “Cherry Blossom Girl” picks out the softness of the snow-laden setting in Paul Strand’s “Winter, Central Park, New York.” Michael Keeney’s orchestral work is key to conveying the initial impression of these photographs and bringing out the fullness of the songs themselves.

The tone changes completely when the orchestrations disappear in the vaudevillian “Washerwoman” and when Wilson changes songwriting partner to Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy.

Wilson and Hannon both have a cheeky side to their writing (as heard in the Duke’s earlier “Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club”) and together they romp through stories in complete abandon to outrageous rhymes and cartoon characters. Here, they capture the pioneers’ attitude of shock and disgust at the news that anyone could become a photographer just by using an instant camera. The track is named after the Kodak slogan from the time, “You Press the Button and We’ll Do the Rest.”

Out into the sticks they carry itYou press the button
Every Tom and Dick and Harriet
Furiously pedaling upon their chariots
Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap they go
Why they snap they do not know…

Like mindless big game hunters they’ll shoot anything that moves…
‘You push the button and we’ll do the rest’
And not unlike that button, I am suddenly depressed.”

The final three songs are less striking, but such subtlety is appropriate for two of the images: one an abstract and one a hazy nude.

This is an impressive release that works better the more that you listen to it and let the music interact with the photographs. While the orchestral setting means that the disc is not one of Wilson’s more mainstream releases, the songs are virtually all accessible enough to work in a rock performance, and the wordcraft is as good as on any of his albums. The Met made an inspired choice.

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