Duhks: Duhks

Lenora Rose wrote this review.

Leonard Podolak first really broke out into the Winnipeg music scene as a key member of Scrüj MacDuhk, a Celtic band with a rock tinge. After Scrüj MacDuhk broke up, he helped to form a new band, performing more varied and original folk, and they borrowed part of his old band’s name, becoming the Duhks. Although he’s the only member the two bands have in common, at least on their recordings, it has been assumed the two bands have more in common than they do.

This may be why the Duhks’ Juno-award winning album opens with a rousing gospel tune. “Death Came a Knockin’ ” has everything you’d want in gospel; a funky danceable beat, some hot fiddle parts, rousing shouts of “hallelujah!” It’s arguably the best thing on the album. Most of the other contenders, of course, are in entirely different genres, and so hard to compare. However, it does set the bar very high for the rest of the album.

They throw off any assumptions about what type of folk they do by following this with a bluegrass number and a set of Celtic tunes, both likewise well arranged, and deliberately contrasting.

The fourth track, “Four Blue Walls,” slows things down a little, though it can’t resist throwing in some rock overtones. It’s a haunting piece of singer-songwriter work, borrowed from Ruth Unger, about a girl finding a way to deal with memories of abuse. Jessica Havey knows exactly how far to push the sound, so that she never comes off weak, and never runs over the top.

This is followed by “The Wagoner’s Lad,” a traditional that could have come, arrangement and all, straight from Cape Breton. All the rock and jazz and gospel and Latin fall away, leaving simple folk. Tania Elizabeth takes the lead here, her voice weaker than Jessica Havey’s, but more suited to the more traditional work.

It continues in this vein, switching folk genres as it goes, stretching for some new ideas as it goes. They approach the second set of jigs and reels in a completely different — and better — manner from the first.

Possibly the most interesting bit of listening is their cover of a Canadian classic, which might fall into the category of ambitious failure. There’s a lot to be said for covers that don’t sound like the original warmed over. Likewise, there are no end of danceable fast-paced songs with acrid undertones in folk-rock. Unfortunately, the bitterness of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is lost under the breakneck Latin beat and Leonard Podolak’s cheerful singing. It sounds fabulous, but once the lyrics are taken into consideration, the tone is off.

On the other hand, between this and the two gospel tracks, it’s impossible not to observe how frighteningly talented is the percussionist, Scott “Señor” Senior; he deserves more of both praise and acknowledgement than he’s been given to this moment.

The weakest moment is probably the final tune set, “The Dregs of Birch.” It begins gently with Jordan McConnell on solo guitar. (The rather delicate tune he performs is labelled only as a slip jig, though it seems to be the same tune Kate Rusby calls “Barney Brallaghan”.) He lingers over it a while, with the fiddler adding variations on the theme, before it jumps into a faster tune. It’s a good start, and a decent middle, but the third part collapses. The harmony turns shaky, sometimes outright out of tune. It feels like an amateur mistake on an album that is otherwise entirely up to professional standards.

At this point, the variety on the album sounds like it should be a drawback, but most surprisingly, the album hangs together well. They seem to have a good sense of how to arrange their disparate elements to best effect. Most of the songs are excellent, but even better, the album as a whole is a winner.

(Sugar Hill, 2005)

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