Duke Special cannot be accused of resting on his considerable laurels, with his latest project a highly ambitious triple-CD set, based around a play, a novel and a silent movie star.
The Stage is the Duke-penned music for Bertold Brecht’s 1939 classic anti-war play, Mother Courage And Her Children, which ran in London’s National Theatre late last year. While it’s difficult to assess its effectiveness without the accompanying visuals, it remains a powerful piece of work, and showcases Special’s growing talent as a songwriter, with a stirring, fully orchestrated score, and songs which follow the trials and travails of a group of soldiers who ‘fight for God and legal tender’ during the Thirty Years War of the 1600s. Highlights include the moving -Yvette (Song Of Fraternisation)’, the Jacques Brel-like debauchery of -Soldier’s Song’ and the epic -Mother Courage’ itself, while he even manages a song about the crucifixion of Christ in -Song Of The Hours’.
The Book in question is Huckleberry Finn, a five-track collection of Kurt Weill compositions from an unfinished musical based on Mark Twain’s classic novel. Duke’s interpretations, which received the blessing of the Kurt Weill Foundation, range from the somewhat sombre -River Chanty’ to the rollicking Garden Of Eden drama -Apple Jack’ and the sun-kissed -Catfish Song’. Short but very sweet.
Finally, The Silver Screen is actually again based around a book, Paul Auster’s The Book Of Illusions, which features fictional silent movie actor Hector Mann, who only made 12 obscure silent films over the course of his career before disappearing in the 1920s. The Duke sent a copy of Auster’s novel, along with one of Mann’s fictional movie titles, to 11 fellow songwriters, including Neil Hannon, Ed Harcourt and Ben Castle, who then contributed tunes in a pre-rock -n’ roll style, all performed by the Duke and his band. The result, The Silent World Of Hector Mann, is probably the highlight of the three CDs, bouncing along with a refreshing 1920s’ feel and a warmth that’s reminiscent of old vinyl recordings.
Neil Hannon’s wonderful -Wanda, Darling Of The Jockey Club’ is something of a career high for both songwriter and performer, telling the tale of the famous aviatrix who ‘took a quick spin across the Rockies, just to have a gin sling at the Jockeys’. Meanwhile, Thomas Truax’s hilarious -The Prop Man’ recounts the story of panic caused by a kleptomaniac in a theatre, Ben Castle’s -Tango Tangle’ is sleek and sensual in all the right places, and album closer, -Teller’s Tale’, penned by Aqualung’s Matt Hales, is a creature of fragile beauty.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this entire collection is that it doesn’t collapse under the weight of its ambition. OK, so he’s helped out by a stellar cast of musicians and songwriters on the way, but The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen confirms the unique talent that is Duke Special, extraordinary royalty indeed.