Mount Laurel Township native Matt Duke is yet another New Jersey artist that is doggedly making a name for himself outside the typical mold. From the age of 13, Matt Duke has known that music was his calling, and he attacked it with student-like passion.
By 18, he was recording original material and getting some attention from Mad Dragon Records, a student run label out of Drexel University in Philadelphia. The quality and compositional skill of Duke was so extraordinary that it resulted in several Mad Dragon compilations as well as a full-length disc, Winter Child, which landed in the distribution net of Ryko Records.
It was just a matter of time before Ryko asked Duke to sign with them, which resulted in 2008’s Kingdom Underground, a disc produced by former Columbia guru Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, Tom Morello and Todd Carey). That record led to many tours, acoustic variations and even a collaborative recording project with Jay Nash and actor/songwriter Tony Lucca. From there, Duke’s aim was clear and he progressed into his next phase and current Ryko record titled, One Day Die.
One Day Die is not your ordinary singer-songwriter, bandleader narcissism. Produced by Jason Finkel (engineering and productions credits include Jason Mraz, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart, Green Day) One Day Die is an intricate look at the mentored mind of a writer on the rise. His insatiable appetite for knowledge and the documenting of said experiences surpasses any attention glomming one-man circus mentality, and his ease of compositional skill unveils the intelligence of a writer about to experience longevity.
I mention longevity because Duke is surrounded by an experienced management team that knows all about development and pace. Rock Ridge Music is located in Newark, NJ, and is comprised of several major label experienced mentors. Fronted by Jason Spiewak (RCA, A&M and Noise) along with Tom Derr (Universal) as well as Chris Henderson (current guitarist for 3 Doors Down), Rock Ridge comes from the minds of real players with proven results and a knowledge base that spans decades. Their slant on promotion, distribution and the art of building a real fanbase is a lock and their festival-minded presentations have been some of the best attended in the U.S.
Watching Matt Duke live at The Grape Room in Philadelphia at Rock Ridge Music’s recent Hotel Carolina event was one of those rare shows that root you to the front of the stage from start to finish. Rock Ridge has made a great name for themselves through the homegrown care of all of their acts and it is paying off in a big way for Matt Duke.
His image is geekish, combining the awkward vulnerability of Buddy Holly with the clever and compositional complexities of Ben Folds and Jason Mraz. Duke always dodges left when the mainstream goes right, leaving multiple breadcrumbs of interpretation of his music and never going for the same tired moves that I see many grab like a life preserver.
The songs on One Day Die tumble and roll through stylistic and moving scenes. Like a film that moves from symbolic scene to scene, Duke’s grasp on continuity is solid and anchored in overall theme.
Songs like “M.L.T.” kick this disc into exciting direction right from the start. Duke spares nothing in this introductory tune and the combination of acoustic guitars, vocals and lyrics set this radio friendly song up well. The dynamic hits and sounds in the verse slam hard as Duke and crew paints homegrown, small town stories of everything from death and drugs, to disease, car crashes, economic disaster and the shitty hand we all see dealt in life. Duke knows how to combine the elements of tragedy and beauty in life. Like a mirror, he shows only what is already there and sometimes it is hard to look into that reality, but Matt manages to dress this presentation in symbolic frankincense and myrrh, and we understand the overall frustration of a thumbnail sketch of turmoil.
“Love You Anymore” pushes dreamscaped imagery towards the listener. Duke’s voice is smooth and structured as he lays stark and plaintive melodies throughout, never utilizing mundane falsetto or stock filler in his constantly evolving performance. Fellow Shoreworld member and SRP/Universal/Motown artist Cara Salimando lends an ethereal layer of harmony, class, and verse perspective to the overall presentation as well. The piano work of Jason Spiewak is organic and analog warm, coming in from the background and adding toned melodic hooks to an already infectious radio-aimed gem.
Another song that caught my attention was the dark, understated power of “Lay.” Like a deep and deceptively calm river, “Lay” winds with purpose, its undertow rolling deep to the very riverbed in movement. Layers of synthesizers boil underneath as he maneuvers the body of work into eddies of solace and lyrical peace. This song might never be a Top Of The Pops hit but it demonstrates the power of dynamics and original thought that elevates this writer.
I also liked the Iron And Wine styled solitude of “The Bench On The Hill And Tom Ramblewood.” Duke uses space and silence to make the most of what you do not hear. Dynamics are paramount and he does not shy away from the “less is more” school of thought. Melodies are simple and supported with acoustic instrumentation that sprinkles over the top of this free form tale of a life unchecked or unchangeable. Imagery roils in melancholia as the music fades the very existence of the subject it supports. Poignant lines such as, “I’ve wasted too many hours in my maze that I’ve created trying to get out” give this song a sense of quiet desperation and acceptance of self-imposed fate.
“Seriously Indulge Me” features a multiple variance of rhythms and tempo as Duke ponders the question of our twisted fate and the cross we all carry towards our end game. As he says in verse three, “Paradise, salvation, we could fit you into his plan. But you’ll have to pay the big man.” Bass and drums (courtesy of Geoff Kraly and Carter McLean) lock tight as chimed guitars chug and swirl with echoed brilliance, down the middle of this labyrinth of atonement.
“Shangri-La” shines luminescent with arabesque string arrangements and single, echo lined guitars. A music box wonderland of sound builds here, displaying Duke’s skill at harmonic, vocal layering and sense of soul reaching melody choice. Once again, Matt Duke shows that there is much to be said with focused control and arrangement skill.
The second obvious choice for a radio score is the disc closer, “Abandoned.” This song immediately reminds me of the stark and desperate imagery used on Springsteen’s Nebraska. Duke has the twisted talent of making the most horrendous situation sound like a beautiful lullaby. “Abandoned” explores the feeling of being stranded, forgotten and hopeless as the subject scopes the endless space. Once again, Jason Spiewak returns on piano, and together with the understated guitar work of Duke, the pair turns a minor musical interlude into a memorable and important track.
Matt Duke has always used religious undertones and imagery in his music, but One Day Die may be a turning point when it comes to the abandonment of blind faith. A questioning of the nature of things and the feelings of the inquisitive and frustrated come through here and it is a rebellion that suits Duke quite well. Where he goes from here is up to him—it can only get better wherever he lands. For more information on Matt Duke, his great new record and what he’s up to next, head over to mattdukemusic.net.