Duncan Sheik

Phantom Moon

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On his third album, and first in nearly three years, songwriter and singer Duncan Sheik more closely examines the territory he explored on 1998's Humming with two exceptions: The arrangements are even more sparse, and the songs were written in collaboration with poet and playwright Steven Sater, who wrote all the lyrics on Phantom Moon. That said this is easily Sheik's strongest, and most mature record to date. In fact, it's downright moving emotionally, even with Sheik's trademark detachment, perhaps because of it. On the album's prelude, "The Wilderness," Sheik accompanies himself with a harmonium and a piano, singing "The word is told now/the word is said/the word is old now/and the stone is bread/the heart is bone, now/the heart is flesh/the heart is known, now/and the no is yes." And that's it. It's over, but the major concerns of this "song cycle" have been set in motion. Simply put, all of the songs on Phantom Moon gaze deeply into the heart, that jeweled organ that is considered by all faiths to be the true center of the human being, the true mind. In various settings, either a guitar, a dobro, a piano, minimal drums and bass, or the London Session Orchestra frame these songs with a stark framework to allow their fragile melodies -- highlighted by Sheik's gorgeous baritone -- and poetic lyrics to come to the fore. One song ends as the next begins, nearly overlapping, carrying the listener ever deeper into a space of reflection and appreciation for this aesthetic whisper of an album. If ever Sheik were compared to Nick Drake, Phantom Moon would be the appropriate location for such a comparison, with the haunted string section framing "Sad Stephen's Song," with its skeletal dobro and dulcimer. Or perhaps the (relatively) up-tempo folk song structure of "Time and Good Fortune," which is lushly -- if understatedly so -- orchestrated by the not only the LSO but by Sheik's use of glockenspiel, harmonium, banjo, double bass, and drums. This track sounds as if Phil Ochs were singing a song written by Drake and arranged by John Cale. The listener wonders where the film is to accompany such striking yet subtle imagery. And with the appearance of labelmate Bill Frisell on the beautiful melancholy that is "Far Away," the album just goes over the top emotionally. Sheik's heart is broken over and over again it seems, not in any maudlin way, but as a way of stretching its boundaries -- to obey Leonard Cohen's dictum that "there is a crack in everything/that's where the light gets in." Frisell's lilting melodic improvising colors all the blues lavender, and daylight is just over the horizon. And the amazing thing is, it just goes on, reaching ever higher while sitting perfectly and meditatively still, allowing images, feelings, and notions of "what to do" to enter, make themselves known, and leave. There are no weak moments on Phantom Moon. Sheik has proven himself a mature songwriter who has it within his power to write virtually anything he wants; he is also a deft arranger who knows exactly what his songs require -- he resists all temptations to excess. With a new label allowing Sheik to give his many ideas voice, at this point there is no telling how far he will go.

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