Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll

Friday, 10th July 2009

The Guardian

"The Duke and the King seem driven by a heavy-heartedness - a sadness that nothing can be as pure or simple as when we were young"

It's something heavy-hearted that drives Nothing Gold Can Stay, the debut record by the Duke and the King, and one of my favourite albums of the year. These are songs of memory and regret, of reminiscence and desire, songs that reflect upon love and childhood and Americanness and, more than anything, upon time passing. It's a mood perhaps best summed up by a line from Still Remember Love: "There's been times in my life, looking back," it runs, "just like a mirror in a smoky Cadillac."The Duke and the King is an alliance of Simone Felice of the Felice Brothers and his longtime friend (and sometime George Clinton collaborator) Robert "Chicken" Burke, along with a highly talented cast of others. They have pulled off a quite remarkable feat on Nothing Gold Can Stay - each song somehow sounding like a classic, each live performance suggesting we are in the presence of a rare, fiery brilliance.The album's 10 songs seem run through with a feeling of loss - of self and a place to belong, as if life has shifted so substantially for our protagonist, that he is now so far from home, he is no longer certain of just who he is these days. In Union Street he gives us a rush of childhood memories: "A regular boy in the Reagan time/ With my BB gun and satellite/ And boy did I want my MTV/ And everything was easy, so easy..." It is, you gather, a time for which he still pines: "If I could just get to Union Street," he pleads, "everything would be alright."Several of the songs follow a similar trajectory - One More American Song, for instance, recalls the heady, youthful days of cherry trees, boomboxes, long winters and singalongs, before delivering the cautionary tale of John, "a quiet boy in school" who "went in the army, like a lot of them do/ And he got fucked up over there/ And if you see him now, he pushes a shopping cart in the parking lot/ If you call him, he don't hear a thing."This warning, essentially not to stray too far from home, is echoed in If You Ever Get Famous, the band's first single, released this spring. The song offers a word of advice to anyone on the cusp of stardom not to forget about the girl you leave behind, "cos she was there, boy, when nobody knew who you were."There are exceptions of course - Lose Myself, for example, in which he embraces the weightlessness of forgetting who you are. Or in Suzanne, a hazy song of seduction delivered in a voice that hovers exquisitely between the Neville Brothers and Smokey Robinson, yet still speaks of a wish not to be alone. But mostly these songs portray all-American idylls besmirched by weakness and lies, by the devil and death. "I never knew that we could die/ When we were young," Felice sings at one point. And then later: "I'm just a liar, just a child who lost his way."More than anything, the heavy-heartedness that sits in this album's belly seems a sadness that nothing can be as pure or as simple as when we were young, that we mess up, that there are wars, that we lie and we make mistakes and that we die. Perhaps most of all Nothing Gold Can Stay is an album about mortality, about the fact that at some point or other we all fall.The track that seems to root this album is the brief, hoarse I've Been Bad: "Woke up this morning, I was thinking of you," it begins. "Woke up this morning I was thinking of you/ Oh-ohh-whoa I've been bad/ Oh-ohh-whoa I've been bad." Four repeated lines, halfway between a blues and a mantra, it's a song that holds the simplicity of a nursery rhyme, and carries the themes contained in the rest of the record: dreams of people and places left behind, regret for transgressions, and weighted by the heavy knowledge that we can never really go home again.- Laura Barton<scan>Laura Barton