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Sheik’s musical soup takes swings with brutal honesty

By Chris Cooper

Duncan Sheik demonstrates a sort of understated brilliance that’s almost alarming when you hear it. Ballads slip from majestic to broken at the turn of a phrase. Grit and political outrage collide with hypnotic guitar and carefully arranged strings. The list of enthusiastic descriptions could just go on and on.

White Limousine is an experience for the listener who likes to think — hopefully that includes the majority of us. As melodic and beautiful and smart as this album is, there’s a feeling that Sheik is turning on himself, us and the world, taking all of us to task for being bored little sheep in a world that is unsuccessfully demanding our attention.

Between our running comedy of political errors and an entertainment industry with the depth of a week old mud puddle, it’s likely we’re due for a good lashing by an artist who can put the words together in the right order. Sheik does just so in White Limousine.

Let’s start by saying that the album doesn’t take off like you might expect. It doesn’t slap you in the face with big drums and big guitars and big everything else right off the bat. It gets there eventually, but takes its time. “Casanova” opens, looking inward. “The Dawn’s Request” follows, and by the time we hit the title track, Sheik is looking outward: at our government and our country. White Limousine is by far one of the best “what the heck is wrong with us?” songs I’ve heard, primarily by virtue of not beating you over the head with the message and Sheik’s crafty imagery. One doesn’t have to scream about an “American Idiot” ad nauseam to get the point across. See “Star-Field On Red Lines” for another fine example.

“Shopping” rides on the premise of a musician (Sheik?) responding to a fan letter with utterly brutal honesty. “Don’t misunderstand me / it always makes me smile / when I serenade you as you’re rollin’ down the aisles” has that sarcastic bite but is loaded with truth. And yeah, I have heard his 1996 hit “Barely Breathing” while sifting through the peanut butter selection at Ingles. Ouch.

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The bigger idea is that music, now more than ever, is nothing more than a product to be consumed, hopefully in mass quantities according to our failing record industry. With another teen pop star springing fully realized and wholly unprepared from the hit factories of LA every 15 minutes and being gobbled up and thrown away like Twinkies just as often, it’s good to hear a witness to the system lay it out so honestly.

Listing the musical highlights is nearly impossible, as it’s all fairly brilliant. I raved about guitarist Gerry Leonard in Recommended Diversions back in September, and he’s all over the place here, providing tortured squeaks and bleeps and gorgeous watercolor washes of sound everywhere, notably on the title track and finale, “Hymn.” Space and mood seem the name of the game here, and all the playing reflects that idea.

It seems that the best albums are probably like a really good soup, where that magical combination of ingredients merge to make something so good you don’t feel the need to isolate individual flavors. White Limousine qualifies as a damn great bowl of soup in this respect. Fellow NY troubadour David Poe makes several appearances on the album, as does the London Session Orchestra.

I haven’t even mentioned the second disc in the package that, with a quick download of some software, allows you to remix the album to your own liking. Pretty cool, but I’m still just enjoying it the way it is: utterly brilliant in every way — 5 stars, and I’d give it more if I were allowed.

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