Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dare Dukes - Prettiest Transmitter of All, and Suzi Ragsdale - Best Regards

This week I’m presenting reviews of two EPs. I have put them together because I wanted to post two songs. I don’t think it’s fair to the artists to post two songs from an EP that only has six or seven in all. So this is my solution.


Dare Dukes approaches songwriting differently than most. He creates a character, and for the space of a song, becomes that character. Dukes knows all that his character knows, and the song is a snapshot of their thoughts and mood at a single point in time. This results in fascinating lyrics, but the danger is that Dukes may make assumptions that we can’t, because we don’t know the character well enough.

The opening track is a good example of this. The Ballad of Darius McCollum gives us a picture of one man’s obsession with the New York City subway system. McCollum knows every stop on the line, and believes that he can make the trains run on time. The last verse makes reference to judges and the police. And that is all Dukes tells us. I was able to research this one, because Darius McCollum is a real person. McCollum lives in New York City, and has Asperger’s Syndrome. Those who have Asperger’s often become intensely knowledgeable on a narrow subject, and act on this knowledge in ways that are not always appropriate. Darius McCollum dressed himself as a transit worker and hijacked a subway train, taking it several stops down the line before being stopped and arrested. Since then, he has made several additional attempts. While McCollum controlled the train, it did indeed run on time. You would not know any of this from the song, but Dukes does show a remarkable understanding of McCollum’s mindset.

As far as I know, the rest of the characters Duke presents here are fictional. And they are an odd lot. Lucas explains what draws him to demolition derbies, and what makes him a real fan. The man in Sam’s Cathedral is a father with a lot on his mind as he shops with his family, and the cathedral of the title may be a Sam’s Club. And a man journeys to Bakersfield to see a woman who might be a former lover, and he thinks as much about the town as he does about her.

All of this has a remarkable affect on the listener. Although we cannot inhabit these characters as fully as Dukes does, we are taken out of ourselves for the duration of the song. And because Dukes is drawn to fringe characters, we find ourselves thinking in ways that are strange to us. And that’s a healthy thing to do at times.

Musically, it is simplest to say that this is rock music. And Dukes has a great gift for hooks; this is music that will stick in your head. But Dukes is also interested in texture, so there is a cello here and a trombone there. He also has a fondness for odd synthesizer sounds; they do blend into the overall sound, but a close listen reveals what sound to me like very old synthesizers, from before the time most musicians used them.

In his press materials, Dukes says that he wants to push his musical boundaries on his next project. I look forward to hearing where that takes him. Overall, I like his lyrics, but I hope he gives listeners a little more context next time. But, mostly, I hope his next project is a full-length album. These seven songs left me wanting more.

Dare Dukes: Ballad of Darius McCollum

[To purchase, send $7.50 (postage included) to: Suzi Ragsdale, 1707 Grand Ave, Nashville, TN 37212]

Suzi Ragsdale sounds like Suzi Ragsdale. I’m sure she could list off her musical influences if asked, but Ragsdale has found her own voice. Best Regards includes six original songs, and it was hard to pick just one for this post. I chose Wishbone, because I find that I cannot listen to it and sit still at the same time. The song features an arrangement for a full folk-rock band. But I could just as easily have gone with Virginia, arranged for acoustic guitar and strings. Or the title track, for Ragsdale’s piano playing, with bass, acoustic guitar, strings, brass, and woodwinds. Or Two on a Tightrope, with full band and circus effects at the end.

All of this may make it sound like Best Regards is overproduced, and no one would be more bothered by that than me. But Ragsdale is cooking here, and she is in perfect control of her ingredients. She gives each song the arrangement it needs, and nothing is overdone. And her voice is always out front in the mix, with the arrangements complimenting her voice, never competing with it.

Ragsdale sings in an alto voice, which goes from an almost whisper, to a purr, to a clear tone. Again, she knows exactly what each song needs. And she puts over the feeling of each song without ever oversinging.

Ragsdale’s songs are short stories. A good short story should have a tidy plot, a sketch of the character, and a satisfying denouement. And these are good. Wishbone charts the progress of a romance through the changing wishes of its protagonist. Two on a Tightrope also tells of a romance, this time through the metaphor of a tightrope act. And in Virginia, a heartbroken woman gains some much-needed perspective by observing her elderly neighbor at work in her garden.

I hope this review does not sound overly adoring. But this CD just knocked me out. I do however, have one complaint: there are only six songs! I have had word from Ragsdale that she is working on a full-length album. I’m looking forward to it.

Suzy Ragsdale: Wishbone


Anonymous said...

listen to that vioce..awsome..and the band knows how to play...a future star greater than she shines now

Anonymous said...

I recently attended a CD release show for Suzi's "Best Regards". It's all you say and more!