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(Victor Records 40426 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/28/2009)
Most popular musical performers tend to be known for a specific style. Breaking out of that involves a certain amount of risk, especially if the artist is closely identified with a sound. But there are also the musically restless ones. Or they could be described as ambitious in taking on artistic challenges.
Duncan Sheik is definitely one of the latter. The New Jersey native singer-songwriter had a remarkably long-running hit with his song Barely Breathing from his eponymous debut album in 1996. But since then, he became increasingly attracted to the theater, looking for other creative outlets, when he found that lightweight pop performers like Britney Spears were taking over the commercial music charts. Around 2002, he created the music for a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, did a film score in 2004, and continued a collaboration with lyricist Steven Sater, with whom he worked on his excellent 2001 album Phantom Moon, and created the musical Spring Awakening, based on a German expressionist play from the early 20th Century. The play won Sheik two Tony Awards for its music, and a Grammy Award for best musical show album in 2008.
Throughout the period, Sheik has continued to release relatively conventional albums, but they have been quite eclectic, ranging from the attractive pop of the song On a High from his Daylight album, to the ruminating introspection of his memorable Phantom Moon CD, which featured subtle string arrangements. After Sheik's innovative 2006 release White Limousine -- which allowed listeners to create their own mixes of the music -- Sheik again turned his attention to a theatrical work. Actor Keith Powell approached Sheik about creating a play based on a trip to a lighthouse in New England. The result is the new CD Whisper House, which Sheik created to be simultaneously a stand-alone album, and a play.
Sheik said he found inspiration when he went to the South Carolina Coast to write, where he spent a fair amount of time in growing up, and where in his youth, he would hang out at an old lighthouse.
Whisper House is described as a kind of melodrama full of ghosts. It's set during World War II, and involves a boy named Christopher, who lost his father in an air battle with the Japanese. He is brought to an old lighthouse in Maine to stay with spinster aunt, and he finds himself surrounded by ghosts. Sheik says that the ghosts comment on the action in the manner of classical Greek theater.
Musically, the CD is runs along the lines of Phantom Moon with contemplative orchestral arrangements. Appearing on the recording is his long-time musical colleague guitarist Gerry Leonard. Featuring prominently is vocalist Holly Brook who sometimes takes the lead vocal. There is a small woodwind section that is a regular part of the arrangements, and a string section also is heard from time to time. Despite the orchestral leanings, the music also has its melodic pop facets, which is something of a Sheik tradition, and there is a bit less of the melancholy than some of Sheik's previous recordings.
The CD opens with a piece called It's Better to be Dead, which sets up the situation and cast of characters. Christopher's mother is inconsolable after the death of her husband and is unable to care for the boy, sending him to his Aunt Lilly in the lighthouse. The title and refrain may have also been one of those commentaries by the ghosts in the lighthouse. Ms. Brook's vocals are featured prominently. <<>>
Following is a piece called We Are Here to Tell You which turns up the energy level considerably, but adds the interesting textures of the woodwinds. <<>>
Holly Brook takes the lead vocal for most a song called And How We Sing, one of the CD's more musically interesting pieces, with its prominent orchestral backing. <<>>
One of the peripheral characters in the play is apparently one of the ghosts, a guy with a really hard luck story. His song is called The Tales of Solomon Snell. <<>>
Sheik's dichotomy between the catchy pop and the subtle orchestral arrangements goes back to the pop side on the piece called Play Your Part, which eventually builds into a kind of Beatles-style arrangement toward its end. <<>>
How It Feels is another of the multi-faceted tracks on the album. It's a kind of laid-back art rock suite, musically. <<>>
Earthbound Starlight revolves around another one of the characters in the play, Mr. Yasujiro, a Japanese man who helped around the lighthouse, and whom the protagonist Christopher did not trust thinking be might be a Japanese spy. <<>>
The CD ends, logically enough, with a song called Take a Bow in which the characters and ghosts are reprised. <<>>
Duncan Shiek's new sixth studio album -- not counting compilations -- Whisper House, is another excellent work by a multi-faceted artist and theater composer. It was originally intended that the play would be produced simultaneously with the CD release. But apparently economic conditions put the kibosh on the theatrical debut in Delaware. But Sheik and the cast are planning to do the play on the road on tour. Sheik, in the meantime, will be touring in support of the CD.
Our grade for sound quality gives Whisper House an "A" for an excellent sonic treatment including the subtle mixing of the orchestral arrangements, in this recording made in England. The dynamic range, the way the recording preserves the differences between loud and soft, is also very good by contemporary standards.
My favorite Duncan Sheik CD is still the Nick Drake influenced Phantom Moon. Perhaps the fact that the music on Whisper House is written around the events in the play, rather than just being created for its own sake, may have restrained this CD. But it nevertheless is a first-rate release by an impressive and versatile singer-songwriter.
(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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