The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across the Land
Startime International

cuts Across the Land is an unadulterated rock ‘n roll album: no Killer synths, pop flourishes, or fancy hyphenates for the Duke, just straight-up guitar-fueled venom worthy of a feudal title.

A rock ‘n roll checklist:
Cynical obsession with love in its most bitter form? Check: Three “loves,” one “heart” and a “darling,” and that’s just the song titles.

Authentic British accent: Check. If Jade Jagger had got the genes she deserved and slept with and then fronted Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, it might sound something like singer Liela Moss.

Two-guitar-‘cus-one-just-ain’t-enough crunch: Check.

Sexy harmonica solo: Check. On the bittersweet ballad “Hello to the Floor,” singer plays an understated, Jagger-esque solo that’s even sweeter in performance.

Reverb overdose, as though the band played exclusively in empty castles: Check.

Raunchy sense of humor: Well, not exactly. The coyly titled “Darling, You’re Mean” turns out to be yet another diatribe of love-as-revenge-as-obsession: “Oooh, it’s driving me mad, yeah it’s driving me mad.”
At some of its best moments, Cuts Across channels the dervish’s energy of PJ Harvey. “Win Your Love” recalls the sinewed guitar attack of Uh Huh Her’s “The Letter” and “Dark Is Light Enough” mines the same sardonic seam of sexual rage as Dry: “You think you push it but you don’t touch me at all / Between your head is there nothing at all.” But Moss can’t match Polly Jean’s electrifying falsetto banshee wail, and doesn’t try, and Cuts Across is tamer for it. For all her railing about love’s bitterness, Moss still doesn’t want to scare off the boys entirely.

The most striking thing about the album its economy: over 16 tracks, there is nary a throwaway cut to be heard, even as the songs tend to blend into one another. On repeated exposure, unassuming songs like “Lovetones” reveal a dirty grandeur. The highs are very high: “Love Is An Unfamiliar Name” builds inexorably until Moss cuts loose in the sexiest moment on the album singing, “Ooooh, oooh, uhuh!” “Bottom of the Sea” immerses a spaghetti Western slide motif in waves of distortion and an apocalyptic, painfully incomplete kiss-off: “There is a heart, a broken heart, inside it molten rock split and ran down my chest.”

Cuts Across is slackest in the ballads that break up the rock ‘n roll attack. “Souvenir” approaches Blondie’s glassy sheen but winds up being more sleepy than anything else, too grouchy to be sultry but too sedate to capture the weight it aims for. But even here the music builds to a wall-eyed, atmospheric glory that, if not quite transcendent, will make a worthy addition to the soundtrack of any indie film involving bars, guns, or horses.

By opting not to stake out a particular niche from amongst its multitudinous influences, The Duke Spirit sacrifices all novelty value: everything here has been heard before. Instead, Cuts Across offers a surprisingly persuasive clutch of rock ‘n roll that beg for barnstorming live performances. If The Duke Spirit can deliver on that promise, they will have earned more than just a feudal title.

Reviewed by: Andrew Iliff
Reviewed on: 2006-03-13
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