Every Tuesday, Torontoist scours record store shelves in search of the city’s most notable new releases and brings you the best—or sometimes just the biggest—of what we’ve heard in Sound Advice.
Oshawa’s Cuff the Duke find themselves in position for a great lurch forward with their fourth album, Way Down Here—the album was recorded and produced by one of Canada’s most successful demographic-crossover roots-rock artists, Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor, and they’re self-releasing it with distribution through Universal Canada on their newly formed Noble Recording Co.—but instead they find themselves at a near standstill.
Recorded at Lost Cause, Keelor’s rural Ontario studio, Way Down Here is an airy affair and, though obviously a Cuff the Duke album, is the furthest departure yet from the rougher indie rock influences that have so far kept the alt in their country. The minimal production on these mid-tempo love songs is both the saving grace and the biggest misstep towards a safe zone that stifles both the band’s creativity and its evolution. It seems to be a case of the whole not quite becoming an entity greater than the sum of its parts. Where an intensity builds in guitars, a soft drum patters, unchanged, until the end (“It’s All A Blur”); where the music shines with personality, singer Wayne Petti falls flat (“Promises”). Petti’s plain vocal delivery is a trademark of the band’s sound, but it’s too much of one thing. There’s no dynamic, no arc, and almost no emotion, save the two quiet and quite beautiful ballads “Like the Morning” and “The Words You Ignore,” the latter recalling punk’s favourite lost boy, Elliott Smith—defeated but melodic, sprinkled with just hints of bass and piano, whispered wonderings about hurt and uncertainties. Petti doesn’t need to turn into an angst-ridden poet, and in fact his distance from that is somewhat refreshing, but a more occasional inkling of his deeper inspirations and frustrations would add some welcomed depth.
Keelor does do a great job bringing out the poppier side of the group on the Roy Orbison–esque “Listen to Your Heart” (streaming above), and the mutually affectionate Blue Rodeo/Cuff the Duke relationship was never clearer than on “Rocking Chair”—its familiar and effective summertime pick/strum chord pattern could be given the Molson Amphitheatre treatment and no one would know the difference. But there is no shortage of folk inclinations in our world of Canadian indie rock; soon, somehow, Cuff the Duke’s songs are going to need a harder push towards something more impactful.
Cuff the Duke play a free album release show at Criminal Records (493 Queen Street West) tonight at 6 p.m. Go! Hurry!