George Graham Reviews Duncan Sheik's "Live at the Cafe Carlyle"
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The Graham Album Review #2053

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Duncan Sheik: Live at the Cafe Carlyle
by George Graham

(Sneaky Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/16/2020)

Most performers who get to a certain stage in their career will put out a live album, most often with previously recorded material. Occasionally the live album will turn out to provide the definitive or hit version of those songs, and sometimes a live album will feature new material. Jam bands and jazz musicians tend to be at their best in a live recording situation. Back in the day when the major record labels held sway over much of the music business, a live album might be a contractual obligation, and they sometimes sounded like it. It’s also interesting to consider how live versions of songs differ from their studio counterparts, including in the selection of material.

This week we have an interesting new live recording by a multifaceted artist, who has been a pop star, a contemplative singer-songwriter, and a Tony Award-winning Broadway composer. He combines material from his different personas, plus a couple of unlikely covers, in a fairly intimate setting in a famous club in New York, that has long been the home of let’s say upscale jazz and cabaret performers. It’s Duncan Sheik, and his new recording is appropriately called Live at the Cafe Carlyle.

New Jersey born, South Carolina-raised Duncan Sheik first came to popularity with his hit song Barely Breathing from his 1996 eponymous album. But his introduction to music came fairly early, when at age 6 he got his first guitar and a copy of Yes’ classic progressive-rock album Fragile. He later gravitated into 1990 UK pop bands like Talk Talk and Depeche Mode. While in College at Brown University, he started writing songs mainly for his own amusement, and was also playing guitar in a band with future star Lisa Loeb. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles and began shopping around demo tapes which landed him a contract with a music publisher, and eventually to Atlantic Records for his debut release. He points out that his hit song Barely Breathing was a last-minute addition to the album, but it won him a Grammy nomination. However, rather than pursuing more of a pop direction, his music become more sophisticated musically and lyrically. We had praise for his release Phantom Moon, in 2001 on this album review series.

Meanwhile, after his 2002 album Daylight, he wrote the music to a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night, and did work for some films. He began working with playwright and lyricist Steven Sater, who eventually proposed the idea of a rock musical based on the 19th Century German play Spring Awakening. Sheik was skeptical, but it turned into a Broadway success, winning eight Tony Awards and a Grammy for best Musical Theater album in 2007. He has also done a musical adaptation of the novel American Psycho.

So with a lot under his musical belt, Sheik decided to bring together an eclectic bunch of songs for a week-long run at the Cafe Carlyle in October 2017, which is captured in the new album. He is joined by a quartet with Sheik on guitar, Jason Hart on piano and keyboards, Doug Yowell on drums and often light percussion, and vocalist Kathryn Gallagher, from the Broadway stage to share vocal duties on some of the songs.

The 17-track hour-plus-long album opens with Circling from Sheik’s 2015 release Legerdemain, one of his contemplative songs. The setting and the arrangement are an excellent fit. <<>>

With a more folky acoustic sound is Half a Room from the same album. The intimate setting is also great for bringing out the subtleties of the song. <<>>

From Sheik’s 2002 album, Daylight is the Such Reveries, which I think is one of the highlights of the this release. <<>>

Live at the Cafe Carlyle includes a version of Sheik’s song Lay Down Your Weapons which was released as a single in 2011. The allegorical lyrics are one of the songwriter’s strengths. <<>>

One of the covers included on the album is Forbidden Colors from the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” Sheik puts his own stamp on the song. <<>>

Another of the covers, perhaps an unlikely one, is Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees, which is given a typically contemplative reading, though it gets electric later in the song. <<>>

Sheik writes that Tom Petty died the week that he was playing at the Carlyle in 2017, and though he had not recorded a Petty song before, he wanted to do a tribute, so he included Face in the Crowd. The version worked out well, though it’s not exactly this album’s strongest track. <<>>

Kathryn Gallagher joins Sheik, sharing vocals on three songs from his theatrical works. I think the highlight is Afternoon from Sheik’s “Alice by Heart,” an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” <<>>

And Sheik revisits his hit song Barely Breathing and gives it a likewise intimate treatment, which allows us to, I think, appreciate the song better. <<>>

Duncan Sheik has gone from a pop star to a more serious composer of multifaceted songs, to a successful Broadway composer. He is quoted as admitting that his fans are rather "Balkanized," with the musical theater fans being rather separate from the fans of his rock and pop career. He says that he really does not try to reconcile the two. But the new live album features material from those different facets, and in the process, introduces yet another one – the setting is essentially a cabaret-style performance. The result is a satisfying listening experience, with a chance to hear Sheik in a stripped-down intimate setting, and in the process hear the music from each of his personas together with the others, and see the common musical threads, with some interesting cover songs thrown in. The arrangements are, by their nature, admirably spare, and Sheik himself is in fine form.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with the live recording capturing the intimacy of the performances well, without obvious attempts at so-called “sweetening.” The sound is warm and inviting.

It has been a long time since I have featured a live album on this review series. Though Duncan Sheik includes many of his past songs on Live at the Cafe Carlyle, it’s a recording that nicely contributes to the career of a versatile and distinctive singer-songwriter.

(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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