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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1231

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Duncan Sheik: Phantom Moon
by George Graham

(Nonesuch 79614 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/14/2001)

The introspective, poetic singer-songwriter has long had a place in contemporary music, since the days of the folkies in the late 1960s, and arguably back to the jazz ballad singers before that. But the current state of the commercial music business is not conducive to such music, which tends to require thinking on the part of the listeners -- something that does not easily fit into the corporate business plan for mass marketing. But the tradition has a worthy history which is drawn upon by the artist featured in this week's review, Duncan Sheik, whose new release is called Phantom Moon.

It's notable that there seems to be a renewed interest in one of the most memorable figures in this distinctive sub-genre, the late Nick Drake, who died in 1974, but whose music received a boost, ironically, though a commercial television ad campaign. Duncan Sheik draws heavily of the influence on Drake, along with fellow melancholists Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson and on into the 80s with groups like the Smiths, the Blue Nile and David Sylvian. Sheik's new album turns out to be one of the finest representations of the style in several years with elliptical, poetic lyrics, acoustic instrumentation and some wonderfully subtle string orchestrations, made the more interesting from the fact that Sheik has established a reputation in the alternative rock world.

Thirty-one year-old Duncan Sheik was born in Montclair, New Jersey, but grew up in South Carolina, where he was drawn to some of the above-mentioned artists, while he studied piano. He attended Brown University and while there, played in a band with Lisa Loeb, who would become known in her own right. Sheik set off on his own, and eventually was signed to Atlantic Records, which released his eponymous debut album in 1996, which achieved surprising success, gaining critical praise and turning up the pop album sales charts. One of his songs appeared in a network TV series, and his song Barely Breathing spent over a year on the pop singles charts. Sheik toured extensively, and recently has been involved with cultural exchange performances including to Cuba and Bosnia. In 1998 Sheik released Humming, which was a more band-oriented recording that its predecessor.

Sheik had previously written all his own material, but he met New York playwright Steven Sater, who had not previously composed music, in a Buddhist group to which they both belong. Sater asked if Sheik would be interested in setting to music parts of his play called Umbrage. They both liked the results, and according to Sheik, Sater would keep faxing him new lyrics, often at a time when Sheik was composing music that almost coincidentally would fit the words. So this entire album is a collaboration between Sheik and Sater, whose words are hardly run-of-the-mill pop. They bring a kind of Buddhist view in their poetic and philosophical direction, often inscrutable at first, frequently allegorical but usually profound on consideration. Sheik, in the meantime, creates rich, but subtle compositions that can border on a classical quality in their attention to melody and rich harmonic structure. The classical analogy is enhanced by the presence of a chamber ensemble called The London Session Orchestra, performing some superb arrangements created by Simon Hale, often recalling the melancholy strings on Nick Drake's classic Five Leaves Left. Sheik himself plays guitar and keyboards, and is joined by a regular group which includes guitarist Gerry Leonard, acoustic bassist Jeff Allen and drummer Matt Jacobson. The instrumentation is rather eclectic, including banjo and Dobro in songs that are about as far from country music as one can possibly get. A guest appearance is also made by the distinctive jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Sheik's style is an interesting hybrid. He grew up as part of the alternative rock generation and established his reputation in the style, which remains apparent in some of his approach, but he has also absorbed his predecessors in this kind of style well. He admits as much in a recent interview saying that his CD's title Phantom Moon was no co-incidence in the wake of Nick Drake's final album Pink Moon. One can also hear some hints of early Leonard Cohen and perhaps some Jeff Buckley. While Sheik does not have the quite dusky voice of a Nick Drake, and he sometimes inexplicably breaks into a falsetto, he does deliver the songs with a quiet confidence and subtlety that makes the album all the more memorable.

The self-produced record begins with a short prelude called The Wilderness, which is also reprised at the end of the CD... <<>>

Before that segues into Longing Town, which epitomizes the beguiling sound of Phantom Moon. The song, about parting, is both intimate in its sound and also incorporates the full orchestra. <<>>

Another fascinating piece is Mr. Chess, which uses a chessboard as a metaphor, or perhaps parable, while Sheik puts the lyrics into a more upbeat setting, yet which unexpectedly does not include any drums. <<>>

The approach of winter serves as the lyrical motif in The Winds That Blow. The appealing waltz is further enhanced by the fine orchestrations, emphasizing the woodwinds. <<>>

Perhaps the most interesting lyrics come on Sad Stephen's Song which weaves elements of Homer and Shakespeare to a setting of Trafalgar Square in London. With the eclectic arrangement including Dobro, hammered dulcimer and the orchestra, the track's musical pastels are the sort of thing in which one can easily lose oneself. <<>>

Bill Frisell makes his appearance on a piece called Far Away. Sheik sought out Frisell for the track, and ended up travelling to Seattle to record him. The song is almost a kind of pop ballad, but with the multi-faceted musical interest that is typical of Sheik's music on this CD. <<>>

Especially reminiscent of Nick Drake's music is This Is How My Heart Heard, again featuring the wonderfully sensitive orchestral arrangements of Simon Hale. <<>>

About as upbeat as this album gets is the song A Mirror in the Heart, which features an appearance by drummer Mino Cinelu, who has performed with such artists as Sting. <<>>

There are spiritual or philosophical undercurrents to many of Sater's lyrics for Sheik's songs. That is most apparent in another intriguing piece Requiescat <<>> whose arrangements include both a country-ish Dobro and a very Eastern chime. <<>>

Duncan Sheik's new third CD Phantom Moon is a brilliant record of a type one does not often hear anymore -- a very subtle, contemplative artist delivering songs of great delicacy and frequent beauty. The thoroughly intriguing combination of Sheik's plaintively melodic songs and lyricist Steven Sater's Zen-like words, along with the creative arrangements and the superb orchestrations of Simon Hale make this CD a genuine "ear-grabber:" music that can't help but draw in the open-minded listener to be willingly immersed in its sonic enchantment.

In terms of audio quality, I'll give this CD an unqualified grade A. Everything was recorded well, nicely capturing the sonic pastels of Sheik's languid music, with the orchestra effectively blended into the music, rather than dominating it. The recording's dynamic range is also impressive for a major-label distributed release, doing a respectable job capturing the ebb and flow of the music's energy level. Kevin Killen mixed the CD and engineered most of it, with sessions in New York, London and Seattle.

If anyone is set to carry the mantle of the late Nick Drake, it's Duncan Sheik, at least on his new CD. His Phantom Moon stands as one of the finest releases of the year so far.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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