A Duncan Sheik Anthology: Brighter/Later Label: Atlantic/Rhino
If there’s one thing that’s the bane of most music critics’ existence, it’s that most of us are physically incapable of just letting it go when we’re in conversation and someone says, “(INSERT NAME HERE) has a greatest-hits disc? What is that, a CD single?” They’re making a joke, of course (if a not terribly funny one), and it’s one they’ll recycle as often as they can get away with…not entirely unlike the manner in which I’m recycling this very rant from another review, frankly. Even if I am, however, it’s still valid to suggest that Duncan Sheik is definitely one of those artists who would inspire the joke referenced above.
Sheik is known for his 1997 hit, “Barely Breathing,” and he scored some solid airplay with 2002’s “On a High,” but that’s about it, which means that the average record store consumer would, upon seeing a two-disc anthology of the man’s best work, most likely be shocked to find that he had enough material to fill two discs. Actually, Sheik is a far better singer/songwriter than his more commercially successful peers. His well-produced folk stylings have grown and matured in the near-decade since his debut, and, despite what your not-very-funny friends might think, he does indeed warrant a rounding-up of his best work.
Brighter/Later is divided into two parts – you may not be shocked to learn that one’s called “Brighter,” the other “Later” – with the more upbeat stuff landing on the former and the more introspective material settling onto the latter. One thing that’s notable through both discs, however, is the lush production. With knob-twiddling courtesy of Rupert Hine (the Fixx, Howard Jones) and Patrick Leonard (known for his work with Madonna as well as for being a member of Toy Matinee), the sonic depth of songs like “That Says It All” and “Memento” is notable. The exceptions are the songs from Phantom Moon, Sheik’s excursion off of Atlantic and onto Nonesuch, but, then, those are intentionally sparse. It was wise of Sheik to lead off with the “Brighter” disc, since that’s where the hits are, but by the time most listeners have reached those hits – he’s pointedly put them at the end of the disc – they’ll hopefully have enough appreciation of his work to be legitimately excited about moving to “Later.”
There are three previously-unreleased tracks spread out amongst the two discs. Disc 1 offers a studio cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” (an inspiration of Sheik’s, to be sure) and a live version of “Home,” while Disc 2 provides a decidedly different remix of “For You,” done by drum and bass producer Jamie Myerson. Given that the title of this collection plays on that of a Nick Drake album (Bryter Layter), it’s surprising that they wouldn’t have used Sheik’s take on Drake’s “River Man,” which appeared on a 1998 promotional EP entitled Humming Along…but, then, it’s also surprising that they didn’t use anything at all from that EP, since it also includes his covers of Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” the Smiths’ “Reel Around the Fountain,” and David Sylvian’s “Orpheus.” (Trust me, if you can find Humming Along, you won’t be disappointed.) It also would’ve been nice to include Sheik’s duet with Howard Jones, “Someone You Need,” but you can’t have everything.
Brighter/Later is a solid introduction to an underappreciated artist. If you like this, make your next move a purchase of Sheik’s 2006 album, White Limousine (which, sadly, doesn’t even get token representation here, despite having come out way back in January), then step into the back catalog and check out the songs that didn’t make the cut for the anthology…and don’t be surprised if you find them to be about as good as what’s here.