The Duke Spirit‘s third album, Bruiser, is punchy perhaps, but it’s not a knockout. Following two albums of coarse, untamed garage rock and blues, it marks a self-confessed attempt to tighten the sound and provide more space for singer Liela Moss’ melodies. This new direction has given birth to a commercial, accessible record, but also robbed it of any defining sound or personality. The garage is now a shiny car showroom.
The production is certainly big and expansive – the very first sounds heard are a thunderous drum beat and a rolling, dirty bass line. But it’s all a bit classic rock, and the riffs are conventional (if catchy), in a way that demands a big expansive chorus to match. But instead, Liela deals in a downbeat, understated brand of singing – often compared with PJ Harvey‘s – that rarely breaks into the kind of full-throated bellow promised by the build-ups.
There are perfectly good songs on this record. Don’t Wait displays the most passion on the record, and the slower paced Villain, entwined with a memorable piano hook, has a pop edge not unlike The Hush Sound. Everybody’s Under Your Spell also starts to showcase the talents of the guys in the back, as a brooding Queens Of The Stone Age style riff accelerates into a fun, uptempo rocker.
But everything is just too controlled. It’s not just the sound, which never surprises or dares to go anywhere new. There are no crazy guitar solos piercing through the mix, challenging the singer’s supremacy and giving the eardrums a proper challenge; they just sit competently but politely in their appointed place. The downbeat drudge of De Lux could have a true allure with a fuzzy hall of echoes a la Magnetic Fields, but instead plods like a well polished boot. There’s no danger or adventure in the songwriting, either. Ever heard a song for the first time at a gig, and there’s a simple repeated chorus line, and you think that this is going to be really stick in your head, and then you go home and it’s gone? The Duke Spirit replicate that exact feeling here.
It’s certainly not a bad album, and pleasing enough while it plays, but it has no standout moment that demands further listening. The essential problem is, it’s an album that sounds like it would be happy with four out of five. And that’s why it gets three.