Something that can be listened to over and over again
These days, far too many artists fail to exploit the full potential of CDs when releasing records, with 40 minute albums commonly becoming the norm. This certainly isn't the case for Duende, with their self-titled album consisting of an impressive 14 tracks spanning 71 minutes. Of course, quality must continue to prevail over quantity, and Duende don't do a bad job in matching these two factors. The mood of the record begins on a less than positive note, with Alex Radus singing about lacking money and advice, leaving his friends behind as he's "leaving New York City at dawn". The guitar introduction is fairly intricate, with snippets of vocal duetting working well, as they continue to do so in the following track "Good Morning, Good Evening, Good Bye", which has a great western country music feel to it. Maria Woodford sings well in this moderately slow track, where the vocals and guitars alone make a great song, with a notable extensive guitar solo at the end. There's an upbeat bluegrass style intro "Let The House Fall", with soothing and well articulated vocals (as is consistent throughout the album) by Radus. There's an effective atmosphere created by having sad lyrics contrasting with a fairly upbeat melody, furthered by dynamic changes in the chorus and split timing singing between the duo for the line "sometimes you gotta let the house fall". The melody to "Always" may sound quite familiar - in fact the first line of each couplet is almost identical to the traditional hymn Auld Lang Syne. Whilst this melody is repeated throughout the track, the chorus is original and there's a calming bridge before the final verse with a innovative tune on the high string.
Through the album the duo do well in creating well-layered tracks from just their vocals and acoustic guitars, though tapping of the frame in the intro to "Overboard" is a nice touch, with hard striking of chords keeping this percussional effect through the track. Lyrically there is resemblance to "Leaving NYC" with lines such as 'cruel little town', and there's another well developed bridge, with excellent interplay between the 2 acoustics. There's an original tempo adopted for "The Halo", with a great casual style adopted by Radus for the vocals. For a non-American such as myself, this song gives a great insight into lifestyle and culture, being "out on the highway at night"; "Boy this ain't Wisconsin, you better pack your bags". Woodford joins Radus in singing nearer the end, and again there's the Duende- trademarked style of providing a thick-layered developed bridge before the final verse, the difference in this tune being the offbeat chords throughout. The tempo's moved up a couple of notches for the follow up, with an upbeat positive tone and great little solo melodies adding a nice touch. The lyrics complement the music well, with Radus care-free about money, his prospects and future, content in life with his "Old Fashioned House", the song ending with a fine punch ending. This immediately contrasts with "When I Sober Up", a classic slow country track when now "this old house could use some dusting". The lyrics themselves are perhaps a bit routine and mundane, talking about chores such as washing and groceries, but the start of each chorus is always composed and tranquil.
There's innovative interplay in the intro to "Indian Summer", with the ambivalent tone reflected in the song, with the positive aspects such as leaves falling, the sun coming out and the general atmosphere of an Indian summer all counterbalanced by the pain and hurt of love. This is an impressive solo by Woodford, with fairly powerful vocals especially evident when hitting the high notes. The summer theme appears to continue in the following "A Pinch and Then, Sweet", with nice melodic strumming, but "conflicting emotions" still evident. The tone becomes a lot more intriguing and mysterious with "Woman in Concrete", with a unique tune progression, constantly changing. This is the only time that the lyrics are so negative, with powerful lines like "the wicked aching blackness left of one man's heart" and "the unforgiven arms of hope have left me stranded". This all contrasts with the lighter chorus, which suggests more of a childlike innocence and naiveté. "Mercury" begins with a quick movement up the scale before becoming a bit more mysterious. It still appears to be an unperturbed laid back acoustic track, with a nice vocal harmony between Radus and Woodford. This however clashes with later lyrics such as "You're reckless and out of control, please stop". It's quite a sad song, with a moving powerful penultimate verse, with effective dynamic changes followed by a quieter follow up.
Probably my favourite from the album is "Peppers and Jelly", with a nostalgic memorable acoustic memory at the start, somewhat reminiscent to "Let The House Fall", repeated at the end of each chorus. It appears to be a personal track, with Radus writing about the friendship between his partner. However, there's perhaps quite a sad feeling unintentionally conjured up as the track has a vaguely philosophical feel to it, looking at how life is (or maybe that's just my interpretation). Duende's release ends on an emotional note, with "Stand Our Ground" written from the day after 9/11, instead of explicitly focussing on war and fear, Woodford sings of standing their ground and not being afraid, with the moving lyric: "We will mourn what we've lost and we can't afford this cost / But our nature demands that we stay". Overall this is an excellent example of 'fusion folk', of consistently high quality throughout and something that can be listened to over and over again.
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Not just for the East Coast anymore
I first saw Duende in New York City's Sidewalk Cafe, headlining at a night of local music. And while all the performers were enjoyable, one band shone like a beacon far above the rest -- Duende. The fact that they were playing such a small venue (a two drink minimum bought me a 45 minute set) was a mixed blessing; I was fortunate for the opportunity to get to see them in such an intimate setting, but it was clear to me that this duo was destined for greater things.
Acoustic musicians are not rare in the New York club scene, but it's not often we're blessed with the kind of breathtaking harmonies Alex and Maria concoct. Bluesy folk, or folky blues, their sound is unique and their lyrics often staggering.
This album, their first as "Duende," offers listeners a peek at the experience of hearing them in concert, though nothing can rival watching these two riff off of one another on a smoky bar stage. Dressed in 1930s lounge style down to the rakish fedoras, Woodford and Radus make a captivating pair.
Take "Woman in Concrete," for example. This Woodford-penned tune plays twisty lyrics off of soaring, almost dissonant blues melodies, and culminates with a throbbing reprise of the chorus performed a capella -- if it doesn't put a lump in your throat, you're probably dead.
On the other end of the Duende spectrum we have Radus' "Old Fashioned House," perpetually a crowd-pleaser. "House" is a knee-slapping folk melody, given that particular Duende edge by the harmony vocals on the chorus. And Radus' lyrics are nothing short of brilliant: "I was talking to my grandma today, told her about my five year plan, as if I've got a five year plan. She said are you looking at any women seriously? Yeah, I said yes but I don't think in the way you mean..."
In this reviewer's opinion, the standout track on this album is #3, "Let The House Fall." Another Radus-penned piece, this song shuttles between folk and blues with typical Duende ease. Fingerpicking guitar underscores poignant and witty lyrics ("I've had lovers that have left me and I can't say they were wrong / good old friends who don't wanna see me again and I can't blame them at all / sometimes you gotta let the house fall.") made human by Radus' folky melody and Woodford's powerful blues harmony vocals.
Other standouts on this album include Woodruff's "Indian Summer," Radus' "Halo" and the all-too-autobiographical "Peppers and Jelly," which tells the story of Duende on tour:
"Sometimes folks will give you their full attention / patience is neverending /they listen so good. And other folks / want you quit your yappin' / you'll never catch them clapping / and they never go home. But you and me we've seen a lot of things we shouldn't have seen / and you and me, we've been a lot of places we shouldn't have been / with a yogurt jar full of gas money and someone to call a friend / we can make it out and back again."
So here's to Duende. May the yogurt jar be full, may the audiences always listen, and may all of you out there enjoy this cd as much as I do.
Because I can tell you right now, Maria and Alex are going to make it out and back again. And when they come back to New York to play the Beacon, I can say I knew them when.