Winter Child is the debut release for Matt Duke, a twenty-one-year-old student at Drexel University. Discovered by the university’s student-run MAD Dragon Records label, they included four of his tracks on their YXY release, a compilation of twelve tracks from three artists. Interest generated by Duke’s contributions, including XM Satellite Radio’s "The Loft" where he shared the top spot for some six weeks with Bruce Springsteen and Ben Harper, led to this release.
What Matt Duke offers with Winter Child is a subtle mixture of pop and folk, drawing on the strengths of both genres – skillfully woven stories in the form of lyrics and catchy melodies. His voice has a unique childlike quality, and is presented naturally like the clean unaltered instrumentation. Whether it’s a soft soothing ballad or an up-tempo rock-influenced number like the title track “Winter Child,” there is a quality about both the music and the voice that is fresh and pure.
“Ballroom Dancing” exemplifies that soft and childlike quality in the music, the lyrics, and the delivery. The accompaniment, a masterful meld of piano and acoustic guitar, backs up and accentuates the tender descriptions within this potent ballad. The gentle and uncomplicated sound rolls over into the next track. “Taxidermy and The Skiffle Explosion” might seem like an odd name for a song, but it has a way of fitting this mostly instrumental song. With accentuation on the stringed instruments, there is a sparse background-like vocal used intermittently, giving the song a haunted feel.
Another haunting ballad is the album closer, “To Whom it May Concern.” Emotionally charged and quick-cutting lyrics depicting self-destructive behavior are backed with a soft acoustic guitar and offered with a low wistful voice. It is followed by a hidden bonus track that takes those miserable emotions one step further. Musically it reminds me of an old music box whose tune now comes slow and broken, or the background to a slasher flick… the music you hear when danger is about to befall the teen co-ed.
But my favorite track, and in my opinion the strongest, is "The Love We'll Never Know." It's upbeat and uplifting and Duke's voice shines as he demonstrates his range. The song is a bit of an oddity in an album that focuses on harder times and tougher circumstances, but it fits stylistically and shines like a gem.
For the press release on Winter Child, Duke commented on the process of recording the album. “Getting the songs to translate [from solo acoustic arrangements] was an amazing process, but it certainly took some thought… We didn’t want to overdo it, so our real task was to see just how far we could go before we would pull back. It was very much like splashing paint on a canvas.”
All in all, this album is a collection of songs by a young talented songwriter who is just beginning what I am sure will be a long and productive career. With such strong focus on the songwriting, and painstaking attention to the production, it is an album that will be enjoyed by fans of folk and adult alternative music.