October 27, 2021

Duke Special: The Stage, A Book and the Silver Screen

He’s full of clever conceits, is Duke Special. And this is a bit, dare I say it, “special”. Seeing his audiences fail to grow in the way many predicted for him, Duke decided to go down the route of excelling at what he does well, instead of seeking popularity. It’s always good to be the best at something hardly anyone else does. So he raised funds through his fans to record a triple album, promising them advance copies and a range of upgrades. He pulled it off and now has a triple album of arch arcane. One disc is the first recordings of an unfinished musical by Kurt Weill, another is his new music to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Both are the sort of projects that have a small but guaranteed audience because there are a small but vociferous set of folk who know this sort of thing needs to be done. The third of the discs is the one Vanguard got sent to review…..

The album opens on a bouncy number, with jangling ukelele providing rhythm alongside the bass and crooner-style vocals. When the clarinet solo starts, I’m transported to the twenties. And that’s the idea. It’s a concept album (watches cyber readership reach for the ‘back’ button…….). Paul Auster’s novel, The Book Of Illusions, recounts the tale of a man seeking relief from depression by tracking down and watching all the silent comedies of Hector Mann, a fictional movie star of the twenties. It spends a good deal of the time retelling the movies and so does the album.

Wanda, Darling Of The Jockey Club is the single and is another twenties-style romp – “Oh to go on lazy day trips / with the famous aviatrix”. The track is written by Neil Hannon, who seems to be doing more business as a song-writer these days than as The Divine Comedy. All bar one of the songs here are written by others, joined solely by theme and performers. Ed Harcourt’s offering, Jumping Jacks, is not a period tune and neither is Duke’s own song, Mister Nobody, which is full of sadness and tripping piano chords of melancholy. Ben Castle’s Tango Tangle is as great as you might imagine from the title – full of cabaret drama and white face paint atop the strutting piano and bass patterns. 

Clare Muldaur’s song stands out less in such distinguished company but is a fine piece of modern singer-songwriter stuff and Duke delivers it seriously. Double Or Nothing is a waltz with a lonely, broken down air to it. Country Weekend starts very promising, as another cabaret-feeling number, but with twangy guitar. There’s a definite air of Tom Waits about it but with an uplift of hope instead of a dying drunken fall. The Prop Man is another story song and the whole album has a feel of a musical or the sort of songs you’d like to concentrate on in a small crowded bar with a trio enthralling the crowd quietly. 

Into the home stretch, and Scandal is beginning to wrap the tale up in the sort of song a musical would use to advance the plot, rather than explore character. Just as the set welcomed us in with jaunty songs, it plays us out with the elegiac Teller’s Tale, setting our feet back gently on the ground. Throughout there has been a sense of drama and stories to be told, tied together with the gentle and tactile voice of Duke Special, making this an unusual set. It’s been warm, it’s been fun and, mostly, it’s been memorable and that’s not something that can be said of many of the discs that fall on this reviewer’s doormat. 

www.dukespecial.com