Major Themes in Minor Keys
Duncan Sheik Returns with White Limousine

A brief follow-up on last week’s rant:

I watched the second episode of Love Monkey, just to see if it would get better, but alas, it got worse. Absent even the minor wit of the pilot, the focus switched to the musical content, which, to be frank, pissed me off. I don’t think I’ll be watching again.

This is a look at the music industry as written by people who have done no research at all, and seemingly have never met anyone even sort of connected to the business. I’m not even connected to the business, and I know just how lazy, wrong and stupid this show’s view of it is. Let’s start with the fact that a tiny indie label in New York has no way of booking the Black-Eyed Peas or U2 for anything, let alone a benefit concert in a tiny little hall. But then let’s also mention that no tiny indie label in New York would want to book either act for anything.

Nor would they want to book a teen-pop starlet like Zoe, the show’s obvious Britney pastiche, even if they could get her. What kind of label is this? It’s depicted as an anti-corporate, music-loving haven, but the only artists they have discussed so far are mega-corporate superstars, either real or fictional. Many of the real ones, by the way, are on labels owned by Sony, the same company that owns Sony Pictures Television, one of the show’s producers. Which explains the product placement last week.

But it also leads me to the main reason I will never watch this stupid show again. For two episodes now, the industry folks played by Tom Cavanagh and Eric Bogosian have been fawning and fighting over this John Mayer soundalike kid named Wayne, despite the fact that he exhibits no more label-worthy talent than anyone you could catch at any open mic night anywhere. It turns out that Wayne is played by Teddy Geiger, a real-life Mayer clone who does his own singing and guitar playing for the show. Geiger releases his debut album, the laughably titled Underage Thinking, next month. Guess which major label he’s on?

That’s right, this supposedly anti-corporate show is really a giant ad for one of Sony’s new artists, designed to do nothing but increase sales for yet another mega-corporate star in the making. In a sterling example of synergy, Wayne’s songs for the show are actually Geiger’s, and appear on his forthcoming album. It’s no wonder the show seems so out of touch with real music and real music fans – it’s a product of the ad and marketing departments of exactly the kind of soulless company it half-heartedly rails against.

Love Monkey is trying very hard to appear like the exact opposite of what it is, and it’s not working. Part of the problem is the laziness of the writers, who could do just a little research, but given the corporate premise of the show, I doubt the producers could entice any real music fans to work for them. I was angry at Ben Folds for whoring himself out for a quick cameo in this week’s episode, until I remembered that he’s a Sony/Epic artist himself, and probably was forced to do this. And hey, Leann Rimes is distributed by a Sony label, too! Gee do you think that every star cameo and placed product will be from Sony? I wonder…

It’s not very often that I take stands like this, but then, it’s not often that I find something that is so completely opposed to what I stand for. Love Monkey is not only insulting to people who genuinely like independently-produced music, it’s pretty much the enemy, dressing up its money-hungry, stock-price agenda in music-fan clothes. Here’s hoping it dies a quick death.

* * * * *

One of the problems with major labels is that if they don’t know how to market you to a set demographic, they’ll chew you up and spit you out.

Take Duncan Sheik, for example. He had his major label go-round in the early ‘90s, scoring a huge hit with “Barely Breathing,” still his poppiest song. But when Atlantic Records realized that he didn’t want to write that song again and again, they lost interest. They shunted his masterpiece, 2001’s Phantom Moon, off to Nonesuch Records, despite its fragile brilliance, and when he returned with a terrific, breezy pop album called Daylight in 2002, they had already moved on.

Three years later, Sheik appears done with his major label days. He’s just released his fifth record, White Limousine, on Zoe, an imprint of Rounder Records. As you may expect, without the multi-billion-dollar marketing department trumpeting it, few have even noticed that the album is out. No one is talking about it, and there is no buzz, as the industry wags might say.

On the other hand, there are no expectations, either, which may be how Sheik likes it. His brand of slowly-unfolding, epic-scale folk-pop is blissfully out of sync with popular culture. His work has always moved at its own pace, but since Phantom Moon, it has become deeper and richer than even his most ardent supporters would have predicted. To type him as the “Barely Breathing” guy is to do his lovely, layered recent work a huge disservice.

White Limousine is another record without a hit, another wispy song cycle that reveals new wonders over time. It’s an album that no one else would make, grounded in Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake, and yet restlessly reaching for new atmospheres. The songs here recall Phantom Moon, while the production is pure Daylight. Half the songs feature the London Session Orchestra, and all of them are wrapped in Gerry Leonard’s swirling electric guitar flourishes. Everything is slow and luxurious – the title track is the one song that might be considered up-tempo, and it’s the first single.

I admit disappointment the first few times I spun White Limousine. I liked the extremes of his last two records, and this one is a 50-50 mix, one that, I thought, failed to be as beautiful as Phantom Moon or as effortlessly catchy as Daylight. Over time, though, the album reveals its own character, separate from its predecessors. This one definitely takes repeated listens to cozy up to – most of the songs eschew cleverness and immediacy, but they radiate warmth.

The inviting production is deceptive, as well – it’s only through repeat plays that the cynicism and bitterness of this album comes through. The title song is an accusatory glance at popular culture: “America, America, and this is our reward, everything is boring, everyone is bored.” “Star-Field on Red Lines” might be the prettiest anti-Bush song yet, all acoustic guitars and strings, over which Sheik sings, “Strong-arm Christians oiled up and fed, safe as houses in aprons of lead, and sanctified…”

Even with all that, “Shopping” may be the most cynical song in Sheik’s catalog. It starts with him receiving a letter from a fan, asking him why he writes the songs he sings. In merciless language, he lays it all out – music pays the bills, and feeds the consumer culture. “Rock and roll,” he says, “is built on shopping.” The album itself puts lie to that notion – Sheik is relentlessly artistic, and if he’d wanted to, he could have played the game and made untold millions in the ‘90s, but he didn’t. Still, “Shopping” is a stunning bit of bile, its characters soulless and aimless – “Let’s go shopping together, so we can find ourselves, so we can buy ourselves.”

But elsewhere, Sheik spins romance, and love of life. The closer, “Hymn,” is gorgeous, the story of a couple watching a sunrise and wondering how many more they will live to see. “Fantastic Toys and Corduroys” is similarly warm-hearted, a sweet song from a wayward son to a faithful mother. And “So Gone,” one of the album’s delicate highlights, captures the moment when one wakes into redemption, wondering if one will be forgiven.

Time has only strengthened Sheik’s even tenor. It was once his biggest liability, but on this record, it’s one of his greatest attributes. As a songwriter and producer, Sheik only stumbles a couple of times – “I Wouldn’t Mind,” a laborious waltz set to plucked strings, should have been a b-side, and “I Don’t Believe in Ghosts” lacks melody, fading to nothing between some of the stronger tracks. But otherwise, this is a strong outing, a pure Duncan Sheik album – no commercial potential, just some well-written songs produced like daydreams, making up a record that a major label wouldn’t know how to handle, and probably wouldn’t release.

A special note about the package – White Limousine comes with a CD, labeled Mine, and a DVD-ROM, labeled Yours. The DVD includes pre-mixed tracks for every song on the record, so you can create your own remixes. It’s also a neat way to learn the ins and outs of recording. You can play each track separately, and hear what was laid down on each, from bass to guitar to backing vocals to strings. It gives you some sense of just how hard it is to make a record sound this good. It’s not an essential piece of this package, and you can enjoy White Limousine without it, but it is an interesting addition, and I wouldn’t have expected it from Duncan Sheik.

Next week, either the great Richard Julian, or the great-in-a-different-way Ester Drang.

See you in line Tuesday morning.