CD Review of Whisper House by Duncan Sheik
Duncan Sheik: Whisper House
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Duncan Sheik: Whisper House

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


low and steady wins the race. You always thought that was just a pile of BS that parents and elementary school teachers fed to the fat kids who always came in last, but it’s actually true – just ask Duncan Sheik, who flittered across the pop culture radar during the post-alterna-pop boom of the late ‘90s with his hit "Barely Breathing," then promptly faded away.

Except oh wait, he didn’t fade away. Here it is, a dozen years later, and while Sheik’s fellow ‘90s buzz bin artists are off doing God knows what (wherefore art thou, Eagle-Eye Cherry?), Sheik has managed to keep plodding quietly along, releasing album after commercially ignored album of mannered pop-folk balladry. He may not sell worth a damn, but Sheik has clearly mastered the art of obtaining a record deal, and could probably make a killing on the Whatever Happened To… circuit as a motivational speaker.

Sheik is also, by the way, part of the creative team behind the Broadway sensation "Spring Awakening," an eight-time Tony Award winner that has sprouted productions all over the world since opening in 2006. He’s always given the impression that he wasn’t in music to make a living – witness 2000’s resolutely non-commercial Phantom Moon – and now he can really treat his career like a hobby.

For his sixth album (and first for RCA/Victor), Sheik attempts a bit of a balancing act between the pop music and theatrical planes; Whisper House is presented as a 10-song cycle about "the story of a child’s grief and spinster’s longing as seen through the eyes of the ghosts that haunt the remote, World War II-era Maine lighthouse where they live." As a concept, it isn’t quite as risible as the drug-addled backstory of, say, Tarkus, but it’s still an awful lot to ask a batch of pop songs to carry on their own. Sheik intends to use the album as the framework for a theatrical piece that’s set to debut this spring, and perhaps as a post-show soundtrack, Whisper House will resonate more clearly – but as a standalone collection, it is, to pinch half a phrase from Duncan himself, barely an album.

This is perhaps overly harsh for a record as carefully arranged and delicately performed as this one, but no matter how pretty it is, Whisper House combines the worst qualities of Sheik’s music into one tissue-thin package. As a songwriter, Sheik has a fondness – a gift, even – for narrative, but he often forgets to write arrangements compelling enough to drive his songs’ stories, and his inexpressive vocals can’t bear much weight; his best tracks use layers of sound to keep the listener drawn in long enough to absorb their messages. That doesn’t happen here; Whisper House’s stark, simple arrangements keep the album idling in first gear from the first to the final note, and the melodies occupy such a narrow bandwidth that it’s easy to forget you’re even listening to the album.

It is, again, a very pretty collection of songs; in fact, between the sparse sonics and the frequent lead vocals from keyboard player Holly Brook, Whisper House sometimes feels like an album from Damien Rice’s much mellower cousin. But "pretty" can only get you so far – and no further, in this case, than incredibly tasteful background music. These songs may reveal themselves more fully to attendees of the play, but if all you’ve got is the album, don’t go looking for an "Awakening" here. After a few listens to Whisper House, you’re more likely to find yourself in the throes of a long winter’s nap.

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