Cuff the Duke - Cuff the Duke (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Cuff the Duke

Cuff the Duke (2005)


I draw a lot of parallels between Cuff the Duke's self-titled sophomore effort and Hot Hot Heat's Elevator. Back in 2002, both bands release critically acclaimed records, breaking themselves into the Canadian indie scene with punk-influenced, nervously energetic albums that carried a wonderful sense of spontaneity. While the West coast act derived their sound from the Cure, the Oshawa-based Duke took an alt-country stance that was quite out of step with just about everyone. Their ability to on a dime turn from a well-worn country pattern into a wall of Sonic Youth fuzz was and is quite unique. However, like Hot Hot Heat, Cuff the Duke waited nearly three years to release the followup, and the results are similar. Both Elevator and the eponymous Cuff the Duke are far removed from the raw, unpredictable nature of what came prior. Both records are safer. Both sound fuller, more professional and pop-oriented. Both make you pine for the time when bands recorded more frequently and thus better documented the "them of then."

Change is difficult, made more so by the timespans involved, but to their credit, this time out Cuff the Duke have delivered some brilliant, albeit more polished, material. The harmonica that opens "The Future Hangs" builds a nice bridge to Harvest-era Neil Young. Wayne Petti's vocals are much more comfortable these days, more melodic and better suited to the band's less aggressive direction. The upbeat country of "Take My Money and Run" is one of the few returns to more rustic grounds. While they flex the muscle less here, Cuff the Duke can take the most clichéd honky tonk melody and deliver it with the utmost urgency. The quality of Petti's lyricism seems uneven at times, and he somehow jumps from the moving imagery of stories "eroding like the shorelines of Lake Ontario" to rhyming "shit" with "shit." The band's smartly attached the less inspired moments to the most fun and upbeat tracks, so it's easy to accept them as the album's intended 'lighter fare' and more on. With a group this obviously smart and self-aware, one gets the impression that nothing is without design. "No Sleep, No Heat" is brooding and vicious, quite unlike anything in the band's catalogue and a welcome new direction. Likewise, the playful "Ballad of Poor John Henry" turns a new page with the sweet backing vocals of guest Isla Craig.

I'm torn on the inclusion of a re-recorded "Anti-Social." Granted, this version has a great stomp that contrasts nicely with the Life Stories cut, but it does little to add to the band's already small songbook. For the most part, the second half of the record is quite strong, with "Belgium or Peru" and "Meet You on the Other Side" among the band's best material. There's either a poignant story or some weird band humour behind "There Was a Time," but knowing neither makes the overwrought chorus of "Mom I'm not gay" quite awkward.

A few curious lyrical moments aside, Cuff the Duke has developed into a consistently compelling and layered act. This is a charming, interesting record that stands up well to repeat listening, but with such a sparse output it's hard to shake the feeling that there could have been more.