duncan sheik:
 phantom moon (nonesuch records)

Singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik is a New Jersey native that grew up in South Carolina, studied music at Brown University and briefly collaborated with Lisa Loeb as well as the early nineties rock group, His Boy Elroy.  After taking several years to write his own music, Sheik signed with Atlantic before his 1996 self-titled debut.  That album garnered national attention and included the single “Barely Breathing”, which earned him a Grammy nomination for best song.

Sheik’s 1998 moody second release, Humming, was more artistic in nature, keeping some of the pop sheen of the first album while relying more on string, piano and orchestral arrangements.  The topical nature of Humming is more pragmatic than the romantic debut, often using self-deprecation to dramatically make his points on ego and self-pity.  His song, “A Body Goes Down”, is a somber, yet wonderful tribute to the late musician, Jeff Buckley.

Classifying Sheik is a somewhat dicey proposition, particularly after his third offering, Phantom Moon.  The material on the album could easily be performed at a rock club or a concert hall (it is perhaps better suited for the latter).   Some critics have called Sheik a modern day Harry Chapin, because of the narrative nature used throughout his songs. 

Phantom Moon was born when New York playwright Stephen Sater contacted Sheik about turning lyrics from his latest play into a musical album.  After some coaxing, Sheik agreed to take on the daunting project and the results are no less stunning than his previous efforts.  Using Sater’s lyrics, he is able to put his own distinctive voice to them with great personal effect.  Sheik described the process of composing using another's lyrics as "swimming, rather than falling into the water."

The music on this album is primarily acoustical.  Once again, the London Session Orchestra provides sweeping string arrangements on several tracks while other tracks are sparse, employing only Sheik’s vocals and a solo guitar or piano.  Sheik uses folk and pop (in its true definition) elements in Phantom Moon, but you will hear none of these songs on your FM radio.  

The album hits stride early on in tracks 2 - 5 and particularly with the standouts "Mr. Chess" and "The Winds That Blow".  "Mr. Chess" studies a person that commands attention and respect from both pawns and queens, that person that has it all together.  Even though we too might "ask to see you, ask to be you, Mr. Chess," we are left with the subtle impression that being Mr. Chess is not all that it appears. "The Winds That Blow" exhibits Sheik's fondness for Nick Drake's music (The title Phantom Moon is a nod to Drake's Pink Moon).

Duncan Sheik is clearly an artist trying and succeeding handsomely in making music with a personal and intelligent message.  One gets the feeling that Mr. Sheik fancies himself a lifetime musical artist rather than a pop superstar.  Here’s to hoping he is correct.

Greg Beadles

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