Dare Dukes balances smarts with empathy on folky new LP

It’s a strange and heady combination, but Dare Dukes operates in the middle ground between the suburban uniformity of his native San Jose, and what the critic Greil Marcus once called the “old, weird America,” a place populated by marginal characters on apparently vital missions.

“These missions, these people, they are what my music is about,” Dukes says in press notes for his new album with the Blackstock Collection, “Thugs and China Dolls.”

It’s the latest entry in a career that has also included fronting the late-’80s Minneapolis band the Penelopes, and a stint in New York writing novels. Now he lives in Savannah, where Dukes recorded “Thugs and China Dolls” with alt-folk singer Jim White producing, and contributions from collaborators with Sufjan Stevens, the National and Of Montreal.

The result is a baroque-folk album built around acoustic instruments: banjo, mandolin, strings, horns, accordion and rich, beautiful vocal harmonies. Dukes sings in a distinctive voice at once tuneful and adenoidal, and his lyrics are smart and vivid.

With twin horn lines, a stop-start rhythm and male-female vocal interplay on the chorus, free song “Meet You At the Bus” feels like a gentler answer to the Replacements “Kiss Me On the Bus,” but don’t mistake gentle for naive: Dukes is as savvy as he is empathic.

Photo by Chia Chong

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Meet You At the Bus

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