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Migrations – The Duhks

Sugar Hill Records 4014

So the Duhks' first Sugar Hill Records release received enough spasms and NPR based outpourings to make me sick. It was another love fest for a band very much in the hip, cool vein during folk music's latest reinvention. It hugged its past, oh so sweetly, but did it with tattoos and leather, Nirvana and Britney Spears covers, which made it "fresh air."

I personally couldn't listen to it. When the best song on the album, a reggae-fied Sting cover, has as its muse a man obsessed with being a modern day Jesus and loves talking about his tantric ability to give it like John Holmes did, I couldn't remove enough of my preconceived upchuck responses. I actually thought about throwing it out on to the street and listening to the harmonics created by rubber burying it into hot asphalt.

What I do remember beyond the Sting cover wasn't flattering. I remembered it sounding, well, disjointed. As if they had just welcomed percussion into their world, and hadn't figured out exactly what a metronome meant to their sound. They were waffling at times, uncertain not about how to integrate the burrundi embellishments, but what it meant for the group's ideological slant.

Better put, it sounded like a fist fight, a fairly weak undercard bout (one without any decent backstory or prefight brawls), against what they could become and what they thought they were. Reminiscent of an early Natalie MacMaster release, there were swings, the past on the ropes, only to be able to counter and undercut. The present got a cut just above the eye. Some blood. It was at the ref's discretion apropos resuming. He let the fight continue, the crowd yelling for blood. They loved the macabre. They loved it all, as the two kept going, each taking the others best punches, the past winning only because the present couldn't stay off of the ropes.

In spite of all of these aspersions, upon listening to Migrations for the first time I was somewhat impressed. There are marked improvements. Tim O’Brien’s presence conspicuously helps clean up the playing, as the instrumentation ostensibly sounds tighter; i.e. better produced. For example the reels and jigs like "The Fox and the Bee" sound less cluttered.

The percussion is now cohesive, not aspiring to be some lame-ass latin counterpoint, to be congo time at the folk festival. Likewise the material picked, in particular the Keith Frank single "Down to the River," learned from Donna the Buffalo, though sounding like a Michel Doucet throw away, fits the group's ethos far better than their eponymous release's banal picks.

However, they appear to have picked up some of O'Brien's own musical flaws. His own fights. O'Brien epitomizes the artist endowed with a great voice, a great instrumental acumen, who just never conveys earnestness. His Red on Blonde release, cover attempts of Dylan’s best, revealed how he could turn a tale of destitution like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" into a neat-o spoon filled jumbled disaster. Often his only saving grace, on recent releases, has been Dirk Powell’s presence, a guy who somehow taps into the Fairport Convention nexus where antiquated songs are applicable in the present.

Too bad he isn't on Migrations, where he could have pushed the band to embody the music’s innate depth, in a way he did on 2003’s Time Again. I think the problem, for O’Brien and the Dunks comes down to a feeling of reverence, as if they are afraid to claim someone else’s song as their own. Resulting in a Tracy Chapman chestnut like "Mountains of Things" sounding completely anaesthetized, even academic.

What distinguishes Jimmy LaFave from his contemporaries, in particular Mr. O'Brien, is the ability to sing Dylan and not just play Dylan. He can literally take "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and push it, inspiring it and engendering it with a new perspective. His version of "Simple Twist of Fate" is better than Dylan's 1974 version, for example. We see something different in between the words, images from another time and place than those Dylan initially intended. It becomes his song, in the same way "You Ain't Going Nowhere" became the Byrds.

I get the feeling the Duhks will be successful despite this shortcoming. They play well enough that the Telluride crowd will lap it up. But it simply sounds like any other folk album in an increasingly crowded field.

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