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Duncan Sheik: Claptrap
(AntiFragile Records release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/7/2022)
Although rock music can get theatrical at times, there are not many rock performers who also write for the legit theater. Duncan Sheik is one of those, and after some years of devoting himself to theatrical composition, he is out with a solo album of new songs called Claptrap.
New Jersey native and South Carolina-raised Duncan Sheik was encouraged to take up music and piano by his classically-trained grandmother. He later took up electric guitar and played in a cover band in high school. In college at Brown University, he was in a band with singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb. Moving to Los Angeles after college to try his hand in the music business, he played guitar as a sideman with different groups and artists, before eventually releasing his debut album in 1996, which yielded the hit song Barely Breathing which was also adopted by a number of TV shows.
Since then, Sheik has been taking different stylistic directions on his albums, from the Nick Drake influenced Phantom Moon, to an interactive album called White Limousine which allowed listeners to create their own remixes.
Along the way, Sheik became increasingly involved with composing for theater. In 2002, he wrote original music for the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night. His 2009 concept album, Whisper House, a collaboration with author and poet Steven Sater, formed the basis of a musical of the same name. His biggest theatrical success was the play Spring Awakening from 2006 also written with Stephan Sater, which won a Tony Award for Best Original Score. His theatrical collaborations have also included work with Suzanne Vega, and a musical adaptation of American Psycho.
His involvement in the theater, along with life developments like starting a family, delayed his intentions to make a new album. Though he released a live recording of previous material and covers in 2020, his last studio album, Legerdemain was in 2015. As has happened with many musicians, the COVID pandemic forced a pause and change in circumstance, which led him to write for a new album. Sheik who is a practicing Buddhist, started exploring the concept of “non-duality” in which seeming opposite concepts like mind and body or life and its environment were not separate entities but were essentially one.
The lyrics of the new album Claptrap reflect that kind of philosophy with a number of songs that take a reflective viewpoint, in some cases leading to optimism. Musically, the album is a little more electric and electronic that some of Shiek’s earlier work. He cites groups like The Cocteau Twins and Talk Talk as sources of inspiration. But his theatrical experience brings to the songs a fairly sophisticated musical setting, which has often part of Sheik’s work.
Leading off the generous, nearly hour-long album is track called Experience which Sheik said was the song he first arrived at when trying to decide what he was going to write about. It features the more pop and electronic-oriented sound of much of this album. <<>>
A song called Isn’t It So features some of the familiar and distinctive elements of Sheik’s music, but with the more pop influenced arrangements of this album. <<>>
Another song reflecting the lyrical philosophical bent of the album’s lyrics is Something’s Happening Here. The multifaceted musical arrangement that goes with the words combine to make this one of the album’s highlights. <<>>
A tune called Smoke and Mirrors reflects the more pop-side of the album though Sheik keeps it interesting. <<>>
Sheik’s stated influence by electronic pop is apparent on the song called You’ll Never Be Alone with another set of philosophical lyrics, though the piece takes on different musical facets as it goes along. <<>>
Another of the album’s highlights is called Good to Know which also brings together Sheik’s musical and lyrical tendency for the somewhat unexpected. <<>>
Chimera II subtitled Safe and Sound brings Sheik back to the sound of his earlier more acoustic songs, but with some electronic textures. <<>>
The album ends with its longest and perhaps most interesting piece Scorpios, which provides a nice finale, given Sheik’s experience composing for theater. <<>>
Duncan Sheik’s new album Claptrap, his first new studio release in seven years, is fully up to the artist’s high standards. Some of his theatrical composing experience is apparent on this project, created essentially in the lull caused by the pandemic. Sheik goes for a little more of a pop sound, but his sophistication, both musically and lyrically raises it well above the cliches of the genre.
In terms of audio quality, we’ll give the album an A-minus. The sound is generally clean and the mix well done, but there is the usual bugaboo of volume compression slathered on to make it artificially louder, and in the process the subtlety and dynamic range is undermined.
Duncan Sheik has had an interesting and multifaceted career over the past quarter century. His new release Claptrap is a thoroughly worthwhile recording that brings together some of those sides of his music.
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