The Bark’s Worse than the Bite
It’s been three years since Neptune, The Duke Spirit’s second album, which gave the band some time to move away from their raw, garage-rock sound. After replacing bassist Dan Higgins with Marc Sallis and taking on Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day producer Andrew Scheps, The Duke Spirit seem caught somewhere between maintaining those raunchy roots and polishing them up into clean indie rock. Bruiser doesn’t seem like the most appropriate name for this latest release—it hits you less like a punch to the gut and more like a half-hearted assault on your ears.
“Cherry Tree” shows off just what The Duke Spirit are known for: heavy drums and bass giving a sexy, slinky edge under frontwoman Liela Moss’s smooth, smoky vocals. Bruiser takes its name from songs like “Cherry Tree,” which populate half the album; “Procession,” “Surrender,” and “Running Fire” are other loud, driving rock songs propelled by churning guitars and running bass. The problem with these songs, however, is their uniformity. They’re not bad, but they lack a sense of danger and edge, the bruising kick, the instrumental vitality that makes songs memorable. These tracks blend together, their melodies difficult to recall after the final notes end.
But The Duke Spirit battle other impulses on Bruiser as well. They engage their diverse influences on “Villain,” a piano ballad that shows off Moss’ impressive vocal range and delicacy in a rare soft, meditative moment of climbing and fading piano chords, culminating in a big, bluesy sound. It’s moments like this that show what the band is capable of, moving beyond typical indie rock. “Bodies” and “Sweet Bitter Sweet” offer similar departures from the band’s previous material, exploring dynamic song structures and instrumentation. “De Lux,” with its atmospheric guitar arpeggios blending into ethereal keyboard melodies and airy, layered vocals flavored with light piano keys tinkling high off in the background, is a haunting example of the band’s new tendency to move away from gutsy rock.
At other moments, though, The Duke Spirit seem to be fighting the move fully into the realm of songs like “Villain” and “Sweet Bitter Sweet.” On “Northbound,” hints of bluesy piano could make it a really great track if the band didn’t fall back into a generic rock chorus after the song’s opening measures. Bruiser toys with a host of musical influences from ’80s British rock to soulful blues. It also shows The Duke Spirit stuck at a crossroads, leaving us to wonder, at least for now, which road they’ll take.