Duke Special - Oh Pioneer Oh Pioneer… Not quite the first of its kind

Review: Duke Special – Oh Pioneer

Published on July 17th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams

Belfast-based singer-songwriter Peter Wilson’s latest album under his Duke Special moniker is at once graced by some genuinely beautiful tracks and marred by the suspicion that he could be capable of something truly gob-smacking with just a tad more ambition, or at least the tools to enable him to realise any grand ideas he may be concealing about his dreadlocked person.

Opener “Stargazers of the World Unite (A Love Song for Astronomers)” lays bare Wilson’s knack for combining the contemplative with the conversational in his lyrics with “I don’t have enough friends who walk with vacant stares…I don’t know enough people who stay up at night / Who talk themselves in circles, never say they’re right”, while his pleasingly airy and understated vocal brings to mind the likes of Elliott Smith and Sufjan Stevens, the spectre of the latter particularly cropping up across the by dint of its twinkly, nocturnal air of wonderment. When distant electronics whir in assent with the rousing harmonies on “I want to get to a good, good place”, Oh Pioneer is most certainly in one of its good, good places. Other tracks though do not fare so well.

The sleek, sophisticated pop of “Little Black Fish”, complete with inquisitive baritone brass section and memorable melodic phrasing of “This time silence is not golden / Voices must be heard”, evidences why erstwhile collaborator Neil Hannon approves (click here to watch the two do battle on RTE), while “Punch of a Friend”, which does indeed appear to be a song about getting laid out by a pal (“When I’m blind with pride and won’t be bent / Though it seems unkind, I’m better for the punch of a friend”) boasts the kind of delicious orchestration that could have landed it a place on The Divine Comedy‘s classic A Short Album About Love. (Furthermore, the riddle-like “Condition”, which at one point declares itself to be Phil Spector, could be seen as Duke Special’s answer to Hannon’s “Gin Soaked Boy”.)

“Snakes in the Grass” is vampy ‘n’ vaudevillian with its quiet-to-loud dynamic, a bit like ELO gifting a bonkers chorus to Richard Hawley, and tender love song “Nothing Shall Come Between Us” charms with its sweetly dancing melody and Norn Irish pronunciation of “now” as “nigh”, but it is the nothing-to-do-with-The-Moody-Blues “Lost Chord” that provides Oh Pioneer‘s highlight with its delicious melodic breakdown, stately marching drums and expressed desire for “the world to make some sense” – for the 4:43 duration of this song, it does.

“My Lazy Saviour” takes a couple of minutes to get going but gets quite stirring when it does, the excellent “How I Learned to Love the Sun” leads a vaguely sinister descending organ line and swaggering beat into quite the floral chorus while tendering “Now my greatest fear, to be exposed / Has become the thing I need the most”, but the album peters out (no pun intended) somewhat with the uneventful “Always Been There” and muted, staccato guitarpeggios of closer “Twice Around the Island”.

There’s much to like about Oh Pioneer, even a little to love, but it somehow leaves you feeling as if there was a great leap into the unknown waiting that it wasn’t quite able or willing enough to make.

Rocksucker says: Three and a Half Quails out of Five!

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Oh Pioneer is out now on Adventures in Gramophone. For more information, please visit www.dukespecial.com


About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.