Dare Dukes + the Blackstock Collection’s new album “Thugs and China Dolls” — a review

Thugs and China Dolls, the album being released January 17th by Dare Dukes + the Blackstock Collection, opens with the pensive and beautiful “Old West Broad”.

Dukes’ high voice and a mandolin are joined by other instruments and vocals, but the song still has an appropriate spareness as it evokes the various meanings associated with Savannah’s West Broad Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard), which was once one of the most vibrant streets in the city and was home to African-American commerce and culture.

It’s a quiet song, but it’s filled with voices.

Dukes explores modern misconceptions and prejudice (“Heard the white girl say, ‘I ain’t goin’ there / They’d just as soon take you to church as gun you down'”), in addition to touching upon how the building of the I-16 flyover contributed to the destruction of the neighborhood.

Such grounding in a sense of place is only one reason I’m so impressed with Thugs and China Dolls.

“Meet You at the Bus”, which has been widely praised by music blogs in advance of the release of the full album, has a catchy, upbeat refrain promising romance and escape.

Meet You at the Bus by Dare Dukes

The title track “Thugs and China Dolls” combines ethereal lyrics and ambient noises with lush but distinct banjo, viola, and keyboards.

The strong lyrics of “Lament of the Subway Rider” cross seamlessly between the abstractions of urban alienation and the concreteness of the fleeting connections between passersby:

Your eyes pass over me, across the advertisement
Of the snake-oil dermatologist careless of his oath.
I muster the oxygen, prepare for chastisement, and
Raise my eyes as you exit the doors.

I want a stereo lover, broken like in a country song.
We’ll help each other suffer. Pretty like a sing-along.

If that seems more “poetic” than much of the indie rock out there, it is. And it’s probably good that not all the tracks ask quite so much of the listener. “Crooked Mouth” features a pop song’s “yeah yeah yeah” refrain and “Simon Says”, produced by singer-songwriter Jim White, stays true to its first line: “Let’s keep things simple and unadorned.”

I’d like to hear Dukes explore the lower end of his vocal range a little more often, and I’m very curious to hear some of these songs performed live at The Jinx next week, a sometimes-noisy rock club. The club setting will probably reveal few harder edges, along the lines of “When the Sky Breaks”, with its more aggressive vocals and instrumentations.

But that’s a minor issue compared to the richness of Thugs and China Dolls.

I’m definitely not the only one so impressed by the music here. Dukes has assembled a stellar cast of musicians, including recurring Blackstock Collection musicians Chris VanBrackle, Blake Helton, Anna Chandler, Daniel Beauregard, Susan Falls, and Robin Sherman, plus members of the Modern Skirts, Of Montreal, Hope for Agoldensummer, and TV on the Radio. Marla Hansen, who has toured and recorded with Sufjan Stevens and others, contributed to three tracks.

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should add that I loved Dukes’ 2008 album Prettiest Transmitter of All, have followed his work here in Savannah over the last few years, and was more than happy to kick in a few bucks for the Kickstarter campaign that helped get Thugs and China Dolls produced.

And I’ll kick in a few bucks for the next album if the opportunity presents itself. I hope we don’t have to wait too long.

Here’s the promotional tour for Thugs and China Dolls:
Jan 19 – Savannah, GA – The Sentient Bean
Jan 20 – Savannah, GA – The Jinx
Jan 21 – Atlanta, GA – Highland Inn Ballroom
Jan 22 – Columbia, SC – New Brookland Tavern (w/ Coma Cinema)
Jan 23 – Durham, NC – Casbah
Jan 24 – Charlottesville, VA – Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
Jan 25 – Brooklyn, NY – Union Pool
Jan 26 – Philadelphia, PA – Kung Fu Necktie
Jan 27 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
Jan 28 – Louisville, KY – Headliners
Jan 29 – Bloomington, IN – The Bishop
Jan 30 – Lexington, KY – Cosmic Charlies
Jan 31 – Nashville, TN – The Basement
Feb 1 – Birmingham, AL – Bottletree
Feb 2 – Chattanooga, TN – JJ’s Bohemia
Feb 3 – Asheville, NC – Lexington Ave Brewery
Feb 4 – Atlanta, GA – Grovery on Home