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Music Review: Duncan Sheik – Whisper House

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Picture a dark night in the wilderness among friends, all huddled around a campsite fire, roasting marshmallows above the crackle of the flame. Someone suggests telling ghost tales, eliciting reactions of enchanted suspense. Such is the mood imparted on Whisper House, the latest album by singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik.

Drawing on attributes of musical theatre and linear, narrative storytelling, Sheik is at turns evocative and engaging, precociously rendering ten songs like chapters in a fantasy book.

Set amid World-War-II-era New England, the storyline centers on the doleful imaginings of a young boy, Christopher, whose father has perished in battle and whose mentally unfit mother has shipped him off to live with his aunt. Christopher soon suspects that his new home — as fate would have it, a lighthouse — is haunted by ghosts. The tracks that comprise Whisper House are the voices of these phantoms, which instill this already crestfallen boy with dread and self-doubt.

Of course, none of this would make much difference if the songs weren’t any good. Fortunately, the compositions are equally progressive and beguiling — underscoring lyrical themes of mortality and irrational fears — making for a rich, thoroughly rewarding album.

On the folksy opener, “It’s Better To Be Dead,” Sheik affects a vocal reminiscent of David Bowie circa Hunky Dory, assuming a stately air that sets a suitably ominous tone. He adds whimsical, melodic flourishes to tracks like “The Tale of Solomon Snell” and “Earthbound Starlight,” contrasting such austerity with more illusory, lighthearted orchestrations.

Complementing Sheik’s foreboding, sullen vibe is vocalist Holly Brook, who renders an ethereal yet intimate presence throughout, gorgeously so on “How It Feels” and “Earthbound Starlight,” as well as on “And Now We Sing,” which finds her singing lead.

Like any good story, Whisper House is imaginative and thematically sound. In translating those qualities to music, Duncan Sheik renders an inspiring work, one which yields enjoyment above and beyond its underlying premise.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Joan Armatrading, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • Ohioan

    Really loving this record. One of the best of 2009 thus far, and Duncan Sheik is one to watch.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    I really like Duncan Sheik, especially his more serious work, but I’m having a really hard time getting into this one. I find it to feel heavy-handed and forced, not natural and graceful like the similarly toned Phantom Moon. I haven’t given up on it yet but I’ve put it aside for awhile. I’m hoping when I check back in with it there is a surprise in store for me.