William Duke’s “The Dark Beautiful Sun” Offers a Satisfying Musical Journey

14 Jan

William Duke has been part of the local music scene for many years. Growing up in Oakdale — a small town in the Central Valley that serves as the gateway to Sierra towns such as Sonora or Groveland — Duke wrote for and performed with a number of bands, eventually ending up in San Francisco.

He was a co-founder, together with Bradley Skaught, of the Bye Bye Blackbirds, a popular Oakland-based, guitar-driven indie rock band. No longer with the BBB, Duke has released three solo albums — most recently, The Dark Beautiful Sun.

The album offers a one-way trip back to the melodic rock, folk-rock, and Americana of decades past. At times, you may think you’re listening to Tom Petty, the Traveling Wilburys, softer Wilco, or even the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills and Nash. But it’s William Duke and his mates, making fresh, original music that simply happens to be in a voice that would have fit with the music of past eras.

The production on The Dark Beautiful Sun is clean and sharp, with great arrangements and meaningful lyrics. The album begins with “The Golden Ring,” bright, upbeat pop-rock with a steady backbeat and ringing guitars. Then, about 1:45 into the track — as Duke does a number of times in the album — he effortlessly shifts gears and slows the tempo, adding a sustained Hammond organ and fingerpicked guitar. These changes in a piece’s mood and dynamics are very effective and nice additions to many of the tracks.

The title track, “The Dark Beautiful Sun,” is a high-energy, guitar-driven pop-rock song. Beach Boys-like backing vocals and handclaps make this a very appealing tune.

After a one-minute instrumental, the next song, “Sons and Daughters,” is warm, jangly folk-rock in the style of the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield.

Track 6, “The Truth Comes Out at Night,” is really reminiscent of Tom Petty. A Hammond organ creates a mysterious ambience. And Duke’s vocals are filtered until a time-shift a little less than halfway through the song.

Track 9 is a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Summer Side of Life.” Rich harmonies give the song a greater dynamic range than the Lightfoot version.

The next track is a ballad, “Your Laughter Fills the Room,” with Duke accompanied by Peter Soe on electric piano. Wistful and poignant, the lyrics tell the story. “There’s a storm that’s coming soon/And your laughter fills the room/And our dear friends, they can’t seem to turn away.”

The album closes with a nice instrumental featuring a sprawling synthesizer and Mellotron, plus a fingerpicked guitar. Overall, The Dark Beautiful Sun is an excellent collection of melodic tunes that I think you’ll really enjoy listening to. It’s a great way to start a new year.



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