Friday, February 12, 2010

Way Down Here - Cuff the Duke (Winter 2010)

Way Down Here

Cuff the Duke
Universal/Noble Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Long has Cuff the Duke maintained a strange foothold in the Toronto music scene. For years they’ve built their reputation as a recognizably gifted band – albeit one that often settles for opener slots - whose affiliation with a major-label keeps their records relatable to the city’s thriving indie-scene only by geographic proximity. Marginalized from the progressive sounds of Toronto’s best indie labels (Out of This Spark, Arts & Crafts) and humbled by the success of their Universal Records-backed colleagues, Cuff the Duke seem perpetually rooted to the local scene. So it’s with some relief that the snow-touched backstreets captured on 2007’s Sidelines of the City have been erased in favour of a blanketed gray winter, as if the quintet sought to remove themselves entirely from the avenues of their urban sanctuary.

And that’s just what they did. The recording for Way Down Here displaced the band to Greg Keelor’s studio in northern Ontario, a sprawling farm virtually isolated in the dead of January. These cut-off surroundings assisted in crafting Cuff the Duke’s most cohesive collection to date; a rootsy mix of mellow rock songs and understated country influences which reveal their songwriting at its most vulnerable. ‘You Were Right’ opens the album on an introspective, 1970s Neil Young, note, with vocalist Wayne Petti matching his welcome timbre to softly treading acoustic guitar. From that fireside warmth, the band branches out on the lightly psychedelic ‘Promises’, the affable acoustic-chug of ‘Listen to Your Heart’, and with the electric guitar in ‘It’s All a Blur’ trembling like a white-noise blizzard. As Way Down Here becomes increasingly clocked-in by balladry (the slightly overlong ‘Like the Morning’), a track like ‘Another Day in Purgatory’ represents the much-needed bluster of a crashing rock song.

Utilizing a restrained alt-country vibe that fits like a good suit, Way Down Here is easily Cuff the Duke’s most well-rounded, impressive release. And while a song as altogether beautiful as ‘Need You’ finds these boys on the cusp of greater songwriting, nothing here will manage to break that familiar glass-ceiling they’ve been fluttering against. Too few chances are taken to elevate Way Down Here beyond the predictable confines of “another good Cuff the Duke album”, with ho-hum tracks like ‘Follow Me’ cloying the bands’ more genuine moments. That Cuff the Duke are currently on a cross-country trek with Blue Rodeo, a Canadian institution in and of itself, likely makes this band’s bed permanently north of the 49th parallel; with this wintry release, I can’t think of a better place to lay down roots.

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