Duke Special is the recording alias of one Peter Wilson, a dredlocked piano playing songwriter from Belfast. Adventures In Gramophone is a compilation of songs from his first two EPs, Lucky Me and My Villain Heart.
“Enough,” I hear you sigh, “the world is full of piano playing bores”. Thankfully this is more early Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright or Antony And The Johnsons than the supine, middle of the road drivel served up by the likes of Keane.
The songs are shot through with passion and energy. The piano playing is melodic, rhythmic and controlled. You can hear the stamp of a youth listening to classic pop from the vaults of the Brill Building, Tin Pan Alley and Motown throughout the LP. Peter Wilson’s powerful voice carries an aching Belfast inflection.
The opening Last Night I Nearly Died (But I Woke Up Just In Time), bounces out of the speakers. A pure pop confection, sugary Beach Boys bass, a summery vocal and high hat splashes that sound like sunlight reflecting of a boating lake on an August evening. Its like The Thrills if they could reach the heights of the hype that surrounded them.
Belfast’s Connswater River provides the inspiration for Some Things Make Your Soul Feel Clean. It’s like a version of Dirty Old Town, rewritten for the 21st Century, with vibes and the piano chime along in the background. The whole album has an analogue warmth, gramophone crackle and value amp dust swirl in the ether of the mix.
Freewheel’s melody is as catchy as MRSA. After one listen I was humming it for days. The chorus has hit written into its DNA. The melody is slowly revealed by the piano, an ancient synth whirls behind it adding an undertow of sadness.
Slashed guitars, hammered piano chords and a two note organ riff quicken the pace on I Let You Down (Like a Tonne Weight). Wilson’s voice is full of regret and heavy with his Belfast brogue. It’s an apology and a self-examination rolled into one.
It doesn’t all work. Regarding The Moonlight In Eastbourne, uses a string section in a vain attempt to polish up a tiny fragment into a three minute song. The piano playing, chugging rhythm and pipe organ on Closer To The Start are a little too saccharin and one paced. Don’t Breathe apes the Bacharach/David dynamics a little to closely, and ends up more Carpenters than Tim Hardin. They sound like the B-sides that I guess they are.
Luckily the collection closes with two more gems. Tiny fragments of a music box melody repeat as the vocals crash in at the chorus and out again into the quiet verses. You Don’t Slow Me Down is grunge played on nursery school instruments, Duke Special’s weary wisdom replacing grunge’s juvenile rage.
“She opened up herself tonight, like a sacred heart or a code that cracked…” so starts the closing, Love Is A Series Of Scars. Backed by little more than his own subtle piano playing, a few ghostly whispers and echoes of strings, it is full of emotion and soul.
It’s criminal that someone like Duke Special struggles to get by. Someone give this man the cash to be let loose in Abbey Road. I am sure that a wide screen masterpiece is waiting to escape from his junk shop muse.