Caught in the Indie Rock Rat Race
For some reason, probably the sex of their singer, London quintet The Duke Spirit seem to invite almost exclusive comparison to other female-fronted groups. Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Kills are almost always brought up despite the fact that The Duke Spirit have always sported slicker, more metropolitan studio fidelity that could only ever come from English soil. “Blue and Yellow Light,” the towering opener of 2016s Kin, blankets the air with thick, shoegazing guitar, breathy, Debbie Harry-style vocals and a fuzzy bass line for a backbone. Dreamy and oscillating, the track is reminiscent of heftier (but still pretty-sounding) rock groups like Joy Formidable – The Duke Spirit’s huge, sugary choruses share a guitar tone with many of their Welsh contemporaries’ whirligig mathed-out chugging. Sadly, that’s about all they have in common besides a lady at the helm. With its intricate vocal layers and dry, echoing snare drum, “Sonar” splits the difference between the two subgenres most integral to The Duke Spirit’s core sound: the sunny lucidity of ’90s britpop and the ’80s post-punk of groups like Depeche Mode, albeit in a manner that goes easy on the quintessential Goth tenancies. “100 Horses Run” fosters sense of foreboding doom without dialing up the gain knob too high, much early like Siouxsie and The Banshees.
The piano intro of “Wounded Wing” will no doubt leave listeners half expecting to hear Bruce Springsteen’s folksy bellow kick in, the only fitting partner to the brazen melodrama. The track champions the male/female vocal harmony that The XX permanently nailed to the flimsy walls of twenty-first century alt-rock – frail, intimate, channeling of Imogen Heap – all of which instantly dissolves with the succeeding shift back to Oasis-style, chorus pedal-drenched riffs of “Hands.” The cut is complete with wailing string bends straight out of ’95 and patched together with hand-me-down surf rock, yet also dotted with moments swirling Grace Slick psychedelia. The second English invasion is not the only ’90s trend that The Duke Spirit revisits. The finger-picked clean guitars, dull toms hits and the mournful whammy bar dives of “Pacific” scream of My Bloody Valentine (shocker), brooding without wholly surrendering to self-indulgent melancholy. Yet the middling pace of the cut, along with “Anola,” begin to wear with the creeping realization that The Duke Spirit have given listeners very little to latch on to. The songs of Kin plod despite the undeniable hookiness of their sometimes overlong choruses. Even guitarist Luke Ford’s considerable dexterity isn’t really enough to combat post-punk songs with pastoral rounded corners and no real grit to speak of. At certain points, the entire group sounds like they’re sleepwalking, and not in a cool, trippy way like Slowdive or Dead Meadow. “Side By Side” is the only track with any sort of punch. It boasts an agility not unlike the sharpness found in the music of Gang of Four; the piston-like snare drum a beacon of texture in an otherwise dense thicket of delay, reverb, vocal layers and shimmery effects, but it’s too little too late to salvage the energy.
Despite what Kin would have us think, The Duke Spirit used to have a little bite to them, a slightly sharper set of claws. Though incredibly superficial, those comparisons to Karen O, The White Stripes and their ilk were far from idle and actually gave the British quite a bit of credit. They underwent the classic indie rock tragic arc: the jumpy, garage rock snap that fueled “Darling You’re Mean” and the title track of their debut, Cuts Across The Land, is conspicuously absent throughout the band’s latest record. It’s like The Kills on Valium with vastly scooped tone controls. Part of the problem is that The Duke Spirit picked the wrong trend to chase far too late in the game. Now that the shoegaze revival is in full swing, all that swirling, delicate atmospheric shit is a dime a dozen. You can get delay pedal noodling anywhere. What’s much harder to find nowadays is an indie band with a bit of crunch, straying just far enough into the cheeky realm of cock rock while still retaining their indie style and aesthetic (and, thereby, street cred). The Duke Spirit have never been that dissonant or discordant, but this record is so pristine, pro-tool’d and machine-pressed that it’s manages to be both no fun and unremarkable.