Paul Duncan: Be Careful What You Call Home

Be Careful What You Call Home is Paul Duncan's splendid follow-up to his 2003 debut To An Ambient Hollywood. Both albums are rather homemade affairs, with the self-taught Duncan a one-man mini-orchestra of guitar, bass, piano, glockenspiel, synths, melodica, and drums, though the new work also features violin, banjo, sax, and drum contributions from a healthy number of guests. Born in East Texas and currently residing in Brooklyn, Duncan favours a timeless acoustic sound (the country-folk jangle of “Riverbed” and the elegant “In A Way” are but two examples) though avant touches like the distorted voice in “You Look Like an Animal” and the meditative glitch of “Toy Bell” add experimental flavour. Interestingly, he includes a generous number of instrumentals, some of which evidence a baroque sensibility that recalls Smile. A trio of such pieces surfaces at the record's center—“Toy Piano,” a pretty lullaby etched by glockenspiels, piano, and strings, “Manhattan Shuffle,” a dreamy amalgam of acoustic guitar and field noises, and “Toy Bass,” a slightly harder-edged groove of drums, electric guitar flutter, and synths—while the later “(Aria)(Cave Song)” meditatively drops acerbic guitar accents in amongst its pauses.

The vocal tracks make the strongest impression, however, due in no small part to Duncan's distinctive voice, a soothing, breath-laden sigh that's sometimes heard in multi-layered form or alone as a stark quiver. His hushed whisper is particularly affecting in “You Look Like an Animal” and “Tired and Beholden,” with both songs also spotlighting his characteristic affinity for lulling rhythms. Though brief, “Oil in the Fields” is an irresistible moment of classic pop whose lovely Rhodes and voice intro is boldly punctured by the slam of Joe Stickney's drums. Duncan's words are often spare and enigmatic. “In a Way,” for example, consists of little more than the following: “In a way I've never before stolen / In a way I have / In a time of wordy music.” Lyrics in “This Old House” (“Mother teaching school … plays advocate to dad … she is the chanteuse … of this old house”) mimic a stream-of-consciousness style that draws upon memory fragments for its subject matter. Acknowledging the material's allusive nature, Duncan himself admits, “I'm writing about things that are beyond me because I don't know enough yet. They're sketches of things we all try to figure out.” No matter: if the lyrics occasionally puzzle, no such mystification attends the music itself which consistently charms with its delicate streams of guitars, pianos, and glockenspiels.

November 2005