The duo known as The Dutchess and The Duke really only have the option of getting bigger. Well, obviously they can strip down further to become either just “the duke” or the “the dutchess,” but the point is that their debut album, She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke, was about as lo-fi and spare as modern albums get. There was little more to the minor sleeper hit than the pair’s voices and an acoustic guitar. The songs were technically basic, built largely around rudimentary chord progressions, slow, dual-octave finger picking and complete aesthetic devotion to the Rolling Stones’ and the Kinks’ stripped-down bluesy tunes. It would seem like a pure stylistic exercise if not for the obvious sincerity Jesse Lortz (the duke) brought to his lyrics and vocal performances. Kimberly Morrison (the dutchess) provided some welcome, appropriately half-hearted and sweet complimentary vocals, adding an intimate feel to the songs of these so-called “campfire punks.”
So yes, The Dutchess and The Duke’s sophomore album, Sunset/Sunrise, goes in the only logical direction a duo of campfire punks can: they expand. Sunset/Sunrise isn’t a Yes album or anything. Percussion is still a rarity for the band and acoustic guitar is still the primary instrument in the mix, but there are additions both subtle and overt. Morrison is more of a vocal presence here, even taking lead here and there (“Sunrise/Sunset,” “When You Leave My Arms”), and her back-up vocals have grown more confident and ornate. Speaking of ornate, there are plenty of understated strings and the occasional organ or piano to add the slightest feeling of chamber pop to the proceedings. In the world of The Dutchess and The Duke, these changes are pretty far from revolutionary. A little notoriety (and presumably, more access to studio time) has emboldened the duo, but this is not a complete sonic overhaul. Rest assured, if you liked She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke, you will find plenty to like on Sunset/Sunrise. The songs grab just the same. In fact, they’re a little prettier.
Though Sunset/Sunrise does feature a slightly more confident Dutchess and Duke, there’s plenty of bleakness to belie the occasionally cheery compositions. In the time between She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke and Sunset/Sunrise, Lortz became a father, and the anxiety that accompanies such a mammoth life change hugely informs the lyrics of Sunset/Sunrise. “Let It Die,” as you might predict against your more hopeful inclinations, is Lortz nervously anticipating his impending fatherhood and deciding he’s not ready. The effect of such dreadful honesty is only made more curious by the sunny music accompanying these sentiments. Elsewhere on “Scorpio”, Lortz just devastates his significant other with a chorus of “I’m a long, long way from you in my heart.” This early section of the album would seem to represent the “sunset” of the album’s title.
This does, of course, leave the listener waiting for the other half of the album’s title, the “sunrise” where Lortz overcomes his fears or at the very least learns to ignore them. “New Shadow” seems to portend some hopefulness and “Welcome to the world, baby Oscar” in the liner notes suggests Lortz has beaten his trepidation back. Mostly, “The River” provides what could potentially be viewed as an optimistic outlook. Lortz imagines himself dying in a variety of lonely ways, only to describe each as “the day I was born.” It could be considered tragic, but it seems more likely that Lortz is attempting to bury his surly disposition. That’s the point of Sunset/Sunrise: it’s a journey in search of a sustainable positive outlook. Here’s hoping The Dutchess and The Duke have succeeded.