The Dutchess and the Duke break hearts on acoustic strings

Breakups can be brutal, but the worst part is the dread before the expected split. Once you're single, your slate is nearly clean. It's when you haven't yet left the comforts of a relationship that a chilling sort of isolation sets in. The Dutchess and the Duke's latest record, Sunset/Sunrise, evokes the cruelty of existing in ominous halfway states: between emotional dusks and dawns, between creating a family and walking out on it, between sounding tough and making honest confessions. It's a soulful collection of “campfire punk” — intimate, folksy ballads recorded live on acoustic instruments. Gruff vocals balance out the mournful choruses, giving a fighting spirit to even the band's most depressing reflections.

The Seattle duo's second release sets the tone with “Hands,” a song about night falling on a couple's sunnier times. Songwriter Jesse Lortz contemplates the life of a lover after he's left their shared home, his presence fading like an apparition, with bandmate Kimberly Morrison's harmonies floating sweetly in the background behind him.

“Who waits for a ghost to come in from the cold just to haunt you?” Lortz asks in the song, adding, “Sometimes, girl, I'm already gone; I've been ready so long. In your heart there's a different man, and I just ain't that strong.”

Throughout Sunset/Sunrise, Lortz writes of a man who is wrecked, wrong (by his own admissions), and walking with dead spirits. He's feeling less than human, but hasn't yet been set free into his bachelor afterlife. In “Scorpio,” blue skies are helpless to lift his mood, the truth clouding the chorus as the duo keeps repeating, “I'm a long, long way from you in my heart.” The list of song titles alone — “Let It Die,” “Never Had a Chance,” “I Don't Feel Anything” — reveals fresh wounds, each one a new, bleak assessment of a couple in ruins. Sunset/Sunrise is permeated by a much darker mood than the band's debut, She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke, but the follow-up succeeds by using the same simple arrangements. As the wording leans toward the dramatic, the pacing is brisk, the singing forthright, and the music still catchy, sounding like the early Stones covering country blues.

These are tender cuts. Lortz purges a mixture of guilt and blame on this record, acting hardest on himself. Sadness punctuates these songs more than anger. On “I Don't Feel Anything,” he sounds hollowed by the absence of his lover, asking “Why do I still reach for you when I'm looking back through time?” And on “Let It Die,” he's out in the cold, “trying to find some darkness … trying to find some sadness,” as the mother of his child lays innocently in bed. The new father repeats, “I don't wanna be here no more,” wanting little more than to let go of this family life.

Lortz and Morrison aren't a couple — they're more like siblings, having known each other since their early teens, when they met in the suburbs outside Seattle. In person, they finish each other's sentences — and sentiments, as it were. I ran into the pair at a garage-rock festival in Portland, Ore., recently. Morrison told me when she first heard “Hands,” the song brought her to tears. On record, these ex-punks form a heart-wrenching union, his sorrowful vocals bonded to her gentle, velvety harmonies. Their partnership reveals their collective strength: Both Sunset/Sunrise and She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke are honest without demanding pity.

The Dutchess and the Duke had a specific place in mind to exorcise the heartbreak demons in their sophomore record. They traveled to downtown Oakland this past spring to record at Greg Ashley's studio, the Creamery. The old concrete warehouse, with its 20-foot-high ceilings, added a natural reverb to the songs. Ashley (who records psych-pop albums both solo and with the group Gris Gris) met Lortz eight years ago when their old bands played together. “I remember he didn't care for my band,” Ashley says. “I think he thought it was hippie music. And here we are today: It's pretty great, making our pussied-out folk records.”

Lortz's unpretentious approach to his lyrics mirrors his approach to recording. Ashley says he was impressed by the way the songwriter went into the studio with no formal knowledge of music. “He doesn't know what any of the notes or scales are, he just has a really good ear,” Ashley says. Lortz was able to arrange string sections for Sunset/Sunrise simply by humming the parts he heard in his head to violinist Carey Lamprecht.

So here again Lortz hangs between two worlds: He has created stirring, sensitive ballads using punk-rock methodology. This is true for the live shows as well. On the group's first tour last year, they'd never played acoustically before, and were unsure how to mike their guitars. They settled on hopping down off the stages where they were booked, strumming like a pair of troubadours. I saw their Rickshaw gig, which was pretty magical.

If Sunset/Sunrise's songs are to be believed, Lortz is always a ghost, feeling invisible even though he's well-loved by the music community. The Dutchess and the Duke's finest virtue then seems to be the duo's ability to remain unsettled, no matter how things fall into place — or fall apart — around them.

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