Oh Pioneer as reviewed in Phantom TollboothWow, this is rich! Duke Special's new mainstream release packs the content in every way as he looks for something deeper.

Label: Adventures in Gramophone
Time: 11 tracks / 46 minutes

In Oh Pioneer’s attractive fold-out lyric sheet, Peter 'Duke Special' Wilson introduces each song with a line or two. He describes “Always Been There” as “an attempt to put words to the longing which seems to attach itself to all of us. Impossible.”  

That feeling of longing threads through much of the album – but for Wilson, putting words to abstract ideas is far from impossible. Along with his co-writers, he is an expert at getting just the right words to create songs that can resonate with many people.

Although teasingly hard to pin down, that longing is less of an angry frustration and more of a desperation for something better. These are songs about trying to grab hold of what Wilson senses is available, but which is just too far away to touch. As he puts it in that same track, that elusive something is “A song I heard way back in the dark... Feels like it’s always been there, waiting.” Alternatively, on the polished pop of the opening “Stargazers of the World Unite,” he describes a group of friends on the roof of a tall building, staring at the sky and sharing their dreams. Knowing that there is more, he ends it by insisting, “I wanna get to a good, good place.”

The feeling is more pronounced on “My Lazy Saviour,” which was inspired by visiting the RBS bank in London just after the Occupy movement had turned it into their ‘bank of dreams’. He describes the challenge of rising from the comfort that he has found himself in, so that he can be more active in living out his ideals.

    “I sense a brighter vision but I’m still in the hole
     Come love, atomic trigger, and burst like a drum roll.”

Is it coincidence that these searches for meaning have the strongest tunes? “My Lazy Saviour” and “The Lost Chord” both have effortless melodies and the latter has a dreamy theme between verses. Both are strong examples of the album’s rich sonic palette, which features tuned percussion and Ben Castle's sax, flute and clarinets to add to its mildly quirky, dreamy otherness. While most of the tracks are romantic in style, there are forays into what I think of as gothic circus; a male equivalent of Eliza Carthy’s short extravaganzas of sound.

Inspiration comes from books as well as experience. “Little Black Fish” was inspired by an Iranian children’s book, which was a thinly veiled attack on the authorities and earned the author a term in prison, while “Punch of a Friend” is based on an incident in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, where one friend punched another, to knock him out of his life-sapping malaise. This is one that is particularly easy for people to relate to. The song can make the listener question both the depth of friendships and whether there are things in his or her life that need to be addressed. The line, “Though it seems unkind, I’m better for the punch of a friend” is one of the hooks spread across this grower of an album.

Probably the most striking track is a simply constructed list song about the contradictions of being human. It contains not one, but two brilliantly-conceived sections:
    “I’m an extra /I’m Director / I’m a pin-drop / I’m Phil Spector”
    “I am brilliant / I am dumb /I am Deep Blue / I am ZX81.”

Those who dislike expletives in their music should be aware that this track includes one that tarnishes it slightly, although the context of the song just about justifies its use. It is frustrating, though, because writers with this much skill are well able to find alternatives that neither distract nor detract from the song.

Beyond the thread of reaching for more, there is little to hold this album together thematically; an easy pop sensitivity and several strong hooks are its bricks and mortar. After several specific projects, he is probably revelling in being able to offer a diverse collection. Other tracks include a waltz of love and resolve, “Nothing Shall Come Between Me and You;” a story about two adventurers considering entering a country, whose borders they are spying out ("Snakes in the Grass"); and a song inspired by talking with actors from a puppet theatre company. "Twice Around the Island," a piece about a pirate, who is considering retirement, is a lightly bizarre story, told with a touch of humour, but it again contains in its hold deeper issues of what motivates us. (A lovely Procol Harum organ line lifts the chorus beautifully).

Give this accessible collection time to flower. At first I thought it quite lightweight, but after some dozen plays, I feel that there would be new things to notice every time in both words and production if I heard it for several more weeks.


Derek Walker

{module Possibly Related Articles - Also search our Legacy Site}