By Al Kaufman
Matt Duke stares out from the cover of his current CD with a mop-haired head, wide open puppy dog eyes, and enough scruff to make the girls think he has a dangerous side. Or maybe he's been too busy saving drowning kittens to shave. He exudes that kind of sensitivity. Either way, the girls should eat it up.
His music matches his look. He writes sweet, sensitive, contemplative songs with pretty melodies. It's a formula that has sold a few gazillion CDs for the likes of John Mayer and Coldplay to name two. The thing about Duke is that his song titles lead to higher expectations, but never fully deliver. "Sex and Reruns," a title with such promise, is essentially about a lonely person who says up late at night watching TV and surfing Internet porn. "I've Got Atrophy on the Brain," takes itself much more seriously than it should. Over a full, majestic melody, Duke sings lines such as, "Armed with beads on my bended knees / I'm praying that redemption will come." Even "The Father, the Son, and the Harlot's Ghost" takes infidelity more seriously than The Scarlet Letter did.
Duke has a history of infusing his music with everything from jazz to grunge, but on Kingdom Underground, producer Marshall Altman has refined his sound to the point of mainstream mediocrity. Altman's purpose was clearly to move units, not create exciting music. Duke's music is pleasant. It will gain him groupies after his shows. But it would have been nice if the CD included more songs like "Walk It Off." Led by Aaron Sterling's driving drums, and a plethora of swirling keyboards, it's a nice angry kiss-off song. Duke's voice isn't quite up to the task, but his effort to spew bile should be commended, especially since the rest of the CD leads one to believe he would just whimper if his girlfriend left him.