Duke Special – Oh Pioneer
(Adventures in Gramophone)
By: Brett Spaceman
The music world (not to mention my review stack) is full of singer songwriters yet once in a while a special talent emerges. Listening to Duke Special for the first time I’m struck by the man’s ability to give his, essentially pop, songs the slightest slant, the merest hint of something different. These things can set you apart from the pack. Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout) sprinkled his early work with a dash of Broadway. Gershwin and Sondheim meant nothing to me in 1984, but Prefab Sprout meant everything.
The artist Duke Special is most compared with is The Divine Comedy, i.e. Neil Hannon. This is because they’ve toured together, they’re both Irish and they both have wonderful singing voices. Oh Pioneer doesn’t make me immediately think of The Divine Comedy. Hannons (brilliant) early work was more influenced by Michael Nyman string orchestration than showbiz. It was classical, or at the very least chamber in its leanings. Duke Special nods more towards music hall.
Real name Peter Wilson, Duke Special hails from Belfast and there’s no escaping the fact that the guy bears a striking resemblance to Aussie comedian Tim Minchin. Since I knew Minchin also makes music I was in serious danger of putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 5. Not so. We can leave the mirth (and music) to Minchin. Duke Special is all about the song. (with a dab of good humour in there too)
This record is a joy. ‘The Punch Of A Friend’ is the perfect jumping in point, the free downloadable promotional single, and ideal position 3 on the album. Before I Am Kloot, John Bramwell released the brilliant You, Me and the Alarm Clock. ‘The Punch Of A Friend’ could have been on it, it’s that good. Wilson’s voice is softer, less acidic than Bramwell but the songwriting craftsmanship stands up.
Of course the album itself is varied and so naturally, is the quality. I don’t love everything here. ‘Snakes In The Grass’ is one I find particularly jarring. But the Divine Comedy records were equally flawed. These are writers who can take us from the ridiculous to the sublime in one chord change. ‘My Lazy Saviour’ is just beautiful whilst album opener ‘Stargazers Of The World Unite’ was always going to appeal to someone like me. ‘Stargazers Of The World Unite’ (A Love Song for Astronomers) to give it its full name. Sounds like a Prefab Sprout songtitle to me.
Sounds like a Prefab Sprout song.
Let’s end with a bit of sobriety. Duke Special has been making music a while now so we aren’t talking about ‘promise’. This is it. Here and now. As the album winds down with my personal favourite track ‘ Always Been There’ Wilson croons “Feels like it’s always been there. I knew it before I even cared. Feels like it’s always been there, waiting“ My thoughts precisely .