Duke Special is a white man with dreadlocks. Normally that’s a reason for us to concoct a complex plan to lock that person in carbonite for all eternity. However, he gets a pass because… well, he is special. Duke Special. Oh Pioneer is the man formely known as Peter Wilson’s 10th release since 2005 and it is a corker.
It lays out its stall from the off. “Swimming in a circle is not like being free…” Little Black Fish drags you in with arresting lyrics, Wilson’s gentle vocals and intriguing sounds swirling behind the keyboard and sparse drums. It progresses to Punch Of A Friend, which takes things darker with organ and subtle multiple Dukes duking it out. Then, Snakes In The Grass feels like a song from a grown up Jungle Book, Wilson by parts Baloo, by parts Kaa with operatic touches that feel like Queen on a indie band’s budget, while Condition is motivational pop gone twisted, Christina Aguilera’s Fighter pushed through the kaleidoscope mind of one man from Northern Ireland: “I am cause/I am effect/I am sober/I am wrecked…”
Nothing Shall Come Between Us takes Duke Special into torch song territory; Sally Bowles at 4am, hammered on gin. There are horns burbling in the background and more strident piano to the fore. Once again Wilson’s voice anchors it all, a really rich and beautiful instrument backed up here by a gorgeous female backing. Elsewhere, Lost Chord is a big piano pop song, the kind you wish Chris Martin could still write when he’s not distracted by hugging Rhianna and bigging up Jay-Z, and How I Learned To Love The Sun sounds like an organist playing for himself on a hot afternoon at the end of a crumbling pier, pretending he’s Macheath in Threepenny Opera. It makes a convincing case for embracing drama in indie pop.
Always Been There is bruised and heartbroken, a welcome slowdown and turn to reflection after the bombast of the preceding tracks. Finally, Twice Around The Island is a suitable book end for a record of skill, passion and drama. There are so many ideas rattling around on this one record you can return to it like a hungry kid running to the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Duke Special has burbled along beneath the radar for years. This is a great record and one that deserves a lot more attention than it is ever likely to get. Highly recommend for anyone who thinks piano in indie rock can be more than Ben Folds bashing away or Tim Minchin vamping for laughs. This Duke… well, it’s a cliche to say again, but he is special.