For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been rocking Georgia songwriter Dare Dukes‘ latest release, Thugs and China Dolls (Mazarine Records), and I love it more with each listen. Self-professed as a better songwriter than an instrumentalist, Dukes wrangled a dazzling handful of seasoned musicians to bring his new set of songs to life, and it’s paid off beautifully.
You may not recognize their names, but you’ve possibly heard their work. Pianist Thayer Sarrano (of Montreal), accordionist JoJo Glidewell (Modern Skirts), trombonist Kevin Moehringer (worked with TV on the Radio), and backup vocalist and violist Marla Hansen (worked with The National and Sufjan Stevens, among others) all make various contributions on the album, along with Dukes’ already present band and a smattering of other musicians.
Thugs and China Dolls opens with a leisurely waltz, “Old West Broad,” featuring gentle horns and accordion lighting the way. Dukes picks up the pace on the following tune, “Meet You at the Bus,” opening with precise banjo picks met by bass strings and trumpet before falling into step with his lyrical verse.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in Dukes’ catchy melodies, but don’t let them distract you from his lyrics. There’s a storytelling quality to his poetry that isn’t unlike those poppy wonders Fountains of Wayne. In “Jim Egger’s Parrot” he sings of a real-life character who carries a parrot whose voice can quell his psychotic urges. Perhaps my favorite song on the album, “Lament of the Subway Rider” comes with the lovely refrain, “I want a stereo lover, broken like in a country song,” followed by the elaboration, “We’ll help each other to suffer.” It’s presented with the fewest instruments of any songs in the mix, which adds to its elegance.
Many songs on Thugs and China Dolls reflect musical sensibilities of the 1990s, but are never overwhelmingly retro. For anyone who spent their teen years indulging in alt-country/alt-pop of that era, this album may speak to you more than most. “When the Sky Breaks” is a vibrant last hurrah before the album’s down-tempo closer “Mighty Love,” and the melodic energy of “Crooked Mouth” makes it one of the most fun and singable appearances on the tracklist (who can resist a series of “yeah yeah yeahs”?) despite its earnest look into how one’s choices and behavior can affect others.