In case middle school English class escapes your mind at the moment, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the King were two con men whom Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer encounter. After extorting the townspeople with their fake Shakespeare, the Duke and the King are found out, tarred, and feathered.
In yet another Felice homage to Mark Twain, (The Felice Brothers album Yonder is the Clock is also to Twains credit), Simone Felice ventures off from his brothers and partners with Robert Chicken Burke to offer up their first album as the incarnation The Duke and The King. Ramseur Records (the Avett Brother’s home base) picked up the duo and releases their freshman effort, Nothing Gold Can Stay.
For Felice Brothers fans (many of whom share a story of the first time they saw them which includes a mad-lib of: basement, bar, exposed brick, sweat, whiskey, shirtless, accordion, calamity, harmonica, wow), the first spin of this album will feel like theyve been had. This version of Simone Felice keeps his shirt on and comes up for air, leaves behind the steamy, fermented, rollicking sounds made with his brothers in favor of a paler, airy, high-altitude folk album that hearkens of Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and even Pink Floyd.
The sound is stellar. Lyrically, Felice shifts drastically from narrative to generically reflective, which is probably the biggest disappointment of the album. Felice is an extraordinarily talented writer (he even penned a novel this year), and hopefully this momentary lapse is a by-product of the season for Felice, who described the album as the soundtrack of a long fateful winter. Though for a winter album recorded in the New York Catskills, the sound is surprisingly warm folk.
If You Ever Get Famous, with its simple acoustics and honest sentiments, starts off and sets high expectations for the rest of the album. Perhaps a letter to his brothers (though written in the second person), its not a far stretch to conclude Felice intended this letter, replete with temporal sentimentality, for his future self.
The Morning I Get to Hell shuffles its feet pleasantly, smiling, swaying into an arrival at the most pleasant hell youve ever conceived of, complete with Ferris wheel rides. It’s a water-colored departure from the gritty rawness of the Felice Brothers, and proof that the best folk music can make even damnation sound enjoyable.
Lose Myself takes a trippy turn towards the psychedelic, providing some pleasant variety. Burke takes the mic for Suzanne, and his pure vocals and twangy guitar are the bright spot to the overly simple (and possibly flirting with banal) lyrics. Summer Morning Rain highlights classic Felice harmonies. Water Spider catches on instantly, but yet again presents a forlorn outlook on life, veiled by the lighthearted tempo and percussion.
Once you give this record time to settle in, this Duke and King are far from deserving tar and feathers. Should this duo chose to continue, leaving the bodkin on the table, they could put out great sounds. Nothing Gold Can Stay presents a long-view of life and music: sounds and themes that have been around- and will stay there — for a long time.