CD Review: Dare Dukes — Thugs and China Dolls; Playing Highland Inn January 21 and Grocery on Home February 4

Dare Dukes and the Blackstock Collection
Thugs and China Dolls
Starland Records

By Al Kaufman

When Savannah’s Dare Dukes released his debut, Prettiest Transmitter of All, in 2008, he established himself as a gifted songwriter who could write a catchy (but not obvious) hook. But, most importantly, he demonstrated that he has a penchant for the little guy, the guy a little left of center, the kid at school whose clothes never fit and who picked his nose, but you knew would grow up and be either a nuclear physicist or a psychopath. These are Dukes’ people.

All these great qualities appear in abundance in Dukes’ sophomore effort, Thugs and China Dolls, with one extra component. Dukes has brought a more orchestral sound into the mix here. It becomes apparent on the first track, “Old West Broad,” which opens with strums from a mandolin and glockenspiel. Violins pluck and horns blow throughout the CD, laying a rich and textured aural landscape.

It is a landscape that does not always mesh perfectly with Dukes nasally, somewhat whiny vocals. He has the type of voice that makes the listener sit on edge, just waiting for him to miss a note. But he never does. It is a voice that is perfect for the more upbeat numbers, such as the buoyant and horn-infused love song “Meet You at the Bus,” and the sunny mandolin driven “Crooked Mouth,” about hereditary traits of all things. On some of the moodier numbers, such as the title track and the Jim White produced “Simon Says,” he would benefit from a weightier vocal sound.

Yes, with lines like “Got room for Jesus, but not for you,” he pokes fun at the mainstream, but Dukes still predominantly displays his love of the outsider. That’s where his heart is. “Jim Egger’s Parrot” tells the true story of a convict who carried a bird with him to calm him from violent episodes. Dukes crawls into the man’s mind when he delivers the words that Jim sings to his bird, Sadie, “But now I know right from wrong. Your voice is good and strong.” The jangly, ragged melody chugs along with a strong trombone backing, offering up a feel of the carnival-like atmosphere inside Eggers’ head.

Dukes takes little moments of life and examines them. He finds them human. He finds them beautiful and fascinating, as are many of the songs on this CD.

Dare Dukes plays the Highland Inn Ballroom on Saturday, January 21, with Georgia Fireflies and Book Club, and Grocery on Home on Saturday, February 4.


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