Mountain Music Review: The Duhks – Your Daughters and Your Sons

The Duhks, hailing from the frigid northern city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, consists of band members Tania Elizabeth (fiddle, mandolin), Jessica Havey (vocals), Jordan McConnell (guitar, uilleann pipes), Leonard Podolak (five-string banjo) and Scott Senior (percussion). This young ensemble draws upon a wide and eclectic blend of folk-inspired musical traditions, from Celtic fiddle tunes and Appalachian bluegrass to West African and Latin polyrhythm to Southern Gospel. In doing this, they create a full, organic, and well-managed sound that any other five musicians would be hard-pressed to duplicate.

Your Daughters and Your Sons is the group’s first release and consists mostly of covers and arrangements of traditional tunes from all walks of musical life. The Duhks use a somewhat atypical technique of grouping several short tunes together as a single “set,” many of which feature short pieces written by Podolak, McConnell and Elizabeth. These sets, as a rule, are arranged a bit like Thanksgiving leftovers: you pile some turkey and mashed potatoes into a torn-apart roll, then smother the whole thing in gravy, and what you’ve got is not exactly turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy on a roll. It becomes instead a beautiful medley of the separate pieces which flow seamlessly together, such that they nearly become one. You can even add peas, which I highly recommend.

The Duhks, released some three years later, represents a record that remains true to the group’s first release, yet expands their horizons and shows increasing maturity. This record marks the introduction of percussionist Scott Senior—who flawlessly blends his cajon, tablas, conga, and bongo thumpings; his pandeiro and shaker shakings; and his delicate bell jingling in with the rest of the band. The album features more top-of-the-line traditional arrangements, and some beautiful interpretations of a few more covers, but is still light on original Duhks songwriting. This cover-heavy album construction makes it tempting for me to say that the Duhks are a bit un-original, but for the way that they take a song by the ears, rough it up, and really make it their own. Their interpretations of other people’s music are always innovative yet respectful, and definitely bring something new to light.

Ruth Ungar’s “Four Blue Walls” is a great example of what this band can do with a song. They take Ungar’s beautiful lyricism and imagery (“…he couldn’t quite resist her/ when she dragged him home for love/ to a room with four blue walls/ on a floor that’s worn like leather/ and the shadows fell across them/ as she held their eyes together…”), as well as her general tone and rhythm, but infuse it with a delicacy, a justified outrage, and a subtle tenderness which makes this song so good it raises goose-bumps.

Their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” on the other hand, is somewhat less successful. At the hands of the Duhks, this song loses all its sorrow in exchange for anger. Podolak’s sharp crooning and the hyped-up tempo conveys an anger which takes the beautiful, personal nature of the song and politicizes it. The Duhks’ version shifts the emphasis from the personal (“take one last look at this Sacred Heart/ before it blows…”) to the political (“everybody knows that the ship is sinking/ everybody knows that the captain lied…”). I guess it depends upon your own level of political outrage whether you view this as a desecration of something beautiful, or a sharp and justified updating of a worn-out classic.

On these two records, The Duhks wander through a wide emotional range. From the joyous, zydeco-spiced “Guiliano’s Tune/Something/Elanor Day’s #2” and the funky, melancholy “Leather Winged Bat” to the defiant “Death Came a Knockin’,” these folks run the sentimental gamut.

So ask yourself this: Do you have an old, sea-chantey singin’, lobster fisherman of a grandpa or uncle? Are you yourself, or is someone you know a stout-guzzling, whiskey-drenched drunk of an Irishperson? Do fiddles and banjos cause a tingling in your nether-regions? If you answered yes to one or more of the preceding questions, then you’ll probably like The Duhks. And honestly, even if you didn’t, you might want to check these guys out.

Basically, this is good, quasi-traditional music with some very interesting twists. The fiddle lends a strong Celtic feel to many of the songs on both records, so if you happen to be an English Lord bent on crushing the filthy Irish ‘neath your boot-heel, you may want to stay away. Also, consider yourself warned if you are the kind of patriot that is tired of pasty Canucks like Neil Young, Mike Meyers, and the McKenzie Brothers kicking American ass at everything we should be good at (i.e. folk music, comedy, drinking beer), ‘cause the Duhks are giving Nashville a run for its money. I give these Canadians a well-earned four of five stars for Your Daughters and Your Sons, and four-and-a-third for The Duhks.

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Eric Greene