This second edition of my late summer round-ups discusses two releases steeped in the Southern California sound of the past, but which are far from being mere retro projects.
William Duke, The Dark Beautiful Sun: Duke’s second solo outing is aptly titled as it frequently combines, or moves effortlessly between, beauty and sadness, melancholy and joy and darkness and light over the course of eleven finely honed tracks. The overall sound evokes the Laurel Canyon scene of the late-60s and early 70s, with elements of country, folk, and psychedelia playing off against Duke’s higher register lead vocals and the gorgeous harmonies that wind their way through many of the songs. Identifying an artist’s actual influences is always a somewhat subjective endeavor but, undoubtedly, the work of at least some of the artists mentioned in the article linked above played a role in the creation and shaping of The Dark Beautiful Sun.
Duke begins the album with a two hook-filled tracks, both of which are marked by instantly catchy guitar riffs. The riff in the opener, “The Golden Ring,” veers back and forth in a manner that will stick in your head unconsciously for days. The title track takes a subtler approach, its basic riff giving way to a mellower vibe supported by endlessly creamy harmonies:
“Many Years Away” is, mostly, a mild, Western-tinged stomper about loss and regret, with its two pieces separated by a minute-long break featuring a rather pretty guitar solo. “Just Lookin’ For Some Sleep” jangles endlessly, and quite beautifully. Duke’s bright vocals give his cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s Vietnam-war era song, “Summer Side Of Life,” even more tension than the original as it contrasts “green fields” and “young girls everywhere” with “young men . . . goin’ off to fight.” “Your Laughter Fills The Room” tackles the pain of still vivid memories as Duke sings in the chorus “there’s a storm that’s coming soon/as your laughter fills the room/and our dear friends they can’t seem turn away.” The album fades away with the quietly soaring instrumental, “1977.”
While the Dark Beautiful Sun is certainly rooted in particular place and time, it nevertheless feels quite contemporary. You can get this timeless collection of terrific pop songs either digitally, on CD or on vinyl via Bandcamp, and I highly recommend that you check it out immediately.
High Desert Fires, Light Is The Revelation. High Desert Fires is a six-piece band hailing from Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles County. Their debut EP, Light Is The Revelation, was recorded in mono and mixed to analog tape. Leader Chris Traynor describes the work as a “spiritual” inspired by the Southern California landscape, particularly the chaparral that dot its hillsides.
The lead track, Azrael, blows in (literally) with desert wind and imparts a comforting vibe over four-and-a-half minutes. The next track, “Fernwoods,” is an early-70’s-styled track, with strings, horns and pitch perfect male-female harmonies:
“High Desert Fires” starts as a quiet rumination. It ends as a mid-tempo R&B instrumental. “Shemahazi” exists suspended in a hazy, drifting dreamscape. “Metaphysical Fight Song” is marked by muscular choir-like vocals and a symphonic backing track. The final track, “Dead Sparrows,” grafts grand orchestration onto a pop song about the cycle of life.
Light Is The Revelation makes its case in barely twenty minutes, and succeeds over-and-over-again. That’s hardly enough, however. The EP leaves you wanting a whole lot “more,” which means that the band has done its job quite well. You can get it on iTunes.