Duncan Sheik burst onto the music scene in 1997 with his hit "Barely Breathing." His self-titled 1996 debut and his sophomore effort, 1998's Humming, were filled with an upbeat melodic pop and silky balladry that arguably ranked him among the decade's finest singer/songwriters.
This week, Duncan Sheik returns to the scene with Phantom Moon, an album that finds the artist collaborating with playwright Steven Sater. On Moon, Sheik adds melody and arrangement to Sater's lyrics with minimalist guitars, orchestral flourishes and his own velvety voice.
Sheik has always had a knack for knowing how to craft understated yet affecting music -- strings that weave in and out, soft drums that pitter-pat in the background, guitars that dance lightly around the melody carried in his voice.
"A Mirror in the Heart" is a fine example of Sheik's greatest talents at work, showcasing how powerful a simple melody and accompaniment can be when it is placed in the right hands. The restraint in Sheik's voice as he sings the song's chorus, moving from tenor to falsetto, is spine-tinglingly wonderful.
Folksy, chiming "The Winds That Blow" moves along at a steady, measured pace, introducing strings and woodwinds that recall latter-day Talk Talk in its orchestral bloom.
"Far Away" is another highlight, beginning with a beautiful, echoing guitar arpeggio and progressing as Sheik's heart-wrenching melody builds to a crescendo in the final chorus. It's the most powerful song on Phantom Moon, and certainly another argument for Sheik's still-evolving talent.
The odd thing about Phantom Moon, though, is that its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. The cohesiveness of the album's songs and arrangements often cause them to run together in the listener's mind. Almost all of the songs run at an even tempo, and Sheik never breaks the album's easygoing mood with an energetic, guitar strumming sing-along. He threatens the listener's attention span with a same-y, heavy-handed production.
One can't help but miss the driving pop-perfection of previous efforts like "Serena" or "Bite Your Tongue." The delicacy and fluidity of Phantom Moon's songs make for a beautiful and rewarding, but sometimes frustratingly difficult, listen.
But Sheik should be commended for making such a brave artistic move. This album rejects radio-ready material in favor of graceful beauty, a risky move in today's market for a young artist already at the edge of popular consciousness.
At times, Sheik's pop sensibilities are sorely missed, but when he gets it right, he is dead on. Phantom Moon may take a few plays to settle in, but when it does, its highlights are some of the most rewarding music you will hear all year.
Young Fresh Fellows vs. Minus 5
Because We Hate You, Let the War Against Music Begin
3 1/2 Stars
Scott McCaughey might be Seattle's best-kept secret, and the longest kept secret at that. He and his rocking pop band, the Young Fresh Fellows, have been at it for almost 20 years -- to scattered popularity, if any.
His biggest break hasn't even come on his own terms: for the past few years, he's toured as an extra member of R.E.M. and appeared on the band's recent albums, including its upcoming release.
But McCaughey hasn't given up on his own, individual success. His newest Young Fresh Fellows album, Because We Hate You, is packaged with an album by the Minus 5, his side project with a lineup of other under-appreciated musicians.
The Fellows immediately establish themselves with Because We Hate You. It's full of indie rock in the Superchunk vein -- solid, strumming guitar rockers that never sacrifice a catchy tune. It's a bright poppy record, the kind that won't get you down, and might find you nodding your head or playing air guitar.
The songs are mostly about love, with odes to fuselage and drum kits tossed in for humorous measure. Easygoing, rest-in-your-head pop songs are the band's best suit. Songs like "Little Bell" and "Summerland" are easy on the ears, and the better for it. The Fellows are also prone to moments of grandeur like "Worthless," a gorgeous rock song with a chorus as sweetly sincere as its melody. "Good Times Rock and Roll" is what it says it is, from the ba-bas to the drum solo and shameless self-promotion.
As strong as the Fellows are, it's ironic that McCaughey gets the most notice for side project Minus 5, which includes R.E.M.'s own Peter Buck and the Posies' Ken Stringfellow. The Minus 5 album here, Let the War Against Music Begin, is an even better indie pop album, at times collecting the Beach Boys, the Flaming Lips and a more fun-loving, jangly form of (surprise) R.E.M. to create an endearing, lively sound. The Minus 5 radiates coolness, and the music sounds and feels fresher than the Young Fresh Fellows'.
"Great News Around You," "Got You" and "You Don't Mean It" shine with a retro-pop catchiness under McCaughey's control. "A Thousand Years Away" is a perfect pop confection, sung with emotive abandon by Stringfellow. The songs here are lighter than the Fellows' contributions, less self-conscious.
As good as both these albums are, too many of McCaughey's songs still feel a little half-baked. That everlasting ingredient of a great song still just barely escapes him. If he would find it consistently, he'd be more of the college-rock household name he ought to be.
The liner notes of the double-album structure it as a duel, one band versus the other -- there's even a scorecard, song by song. After all the punches are thrown, this round goes to the Minus 5, but McCaughey wins any way you look at it.
The Daybreakers' first album, Planet, is a just over an hour's worth of mellow jams and ambient rock reminiscent of Pink Floyd's work on The Wall combined with influences from U2 and the later Beatles.
Albeit a somewhat strange mix, the Daybreakers meld these sounds into a decent, nonoffensive album, the kind best listened to while sipping a cup of International Foods French Vanilla coffee on a rainy afternoon.
Planet's title track features Andrew Schatzberg's eerie, meandering lead vocals layered over rambling guitars and a simple drumbeat.
Schatzberg sings, "Humankind is so surprised/ That God is wearing another face/ He looks nothing like me/ And nothing like you/ Nothing like you ... / We're building/ And we're tearing down/ Battle for the planet of the apes."
While such lyrics are a little overly deep, they mesh with the track's pseudo-ethereal sound.
The Daybreakers pick up the tempo on "The Eyes of God," opening the tune with a catchier guitar part, but fading to a placid serenade heavily dominated by Schatzberg's vocals.
The same goes for most of Planet's tracks. Whenever a tune gets cranked up enough to potentially lead into a head-bobbing rock beat, things slow back down into the same moderate tempo.
Such an even-keel performance is unfortunate, since the Daybreakers have the potential to venture into the realm of Radiohead or Moby.
On "One Again," the band illustrates the lyrical creativity needed to carry heavier rhythms and more forceful melodies. "It's the lie of the century/ It's a crime that's so clever/ Gonna set the dogs free/ Gonna track your ass forever/ Gonna fool you around?/ Gonna embark on the bark until you're caught ..."
The eternal slowness of Planet, however, causes such lyrics to lie flat and lose meaning.
As it is, Planet causes the listener to zone out and perhaps fail to notice that from track to track nothing really changes.
Not to say that consistency is a bad thing, it's just not exactly my own personal cup of tea. (Or should I say cup of International Foods French Vanilla?)
Ultimately Planet doesn't offer any thing to alter your soul or get your body moving. But all the Pink Floyd crazies out there should be reaching for Planet like they reach for the Doritos during a reefer-induced feeding frenzy.
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