It took mere moments for me to make up my mind about Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra. I remember the first time I saw them perform more vividly than I do nearly any other chance musical encounter. They were performing at the Independent Media Center nearly two years ago, sandwiched between the mellow acoustic folk of Mean Lids and the raucous southern rock of Those Darlins. The crowd was quiet and subdued, settled into their seats in near silence, yet when Duke of Uke began playing, the room was immediately electric. They boogied across the stage, weaving together an unlikely gang of instruments and influences into a set that was undeniably infectious. Against the odds, they filled the room with energy. I couldn’t help but eat them up.
What is it that’s so entrancing about Duke of Uke? On their first album, This Way Up, they impressed me with the plethora of genres they could so convincingly slide into, swapping sounds from song to song without ever losing their authenticity. They evoked ragtime, jazz, and classical music all at once. April’s Empire maintains that penchant for songwriting that is at once novel and familiar, but it brings a cohesion to Duke of Uke’s music that is absent in This Way Up. The vivid characters are still there — the funky crooner, the sultry lover, the romantic — but this time, they’re all telling different parts of the same story.
The title track opens with the buoyant sounds of spring. Bright horns burst through a dreamy haze of voices; sunbeams push through to illuminate the landscape below. It’s a warm welcome, and it introduces the musical themes that reoccur throughout the album — David King’s honeyed voice, Lorene Anderson, Anna Hochhalter, and Claire Cannon’s sweet, lilting supporting vocals, and a horn section that is a bold and spirited presence throughout April’s Empire.
“Rip it off!” takes a Motown turn, with King’s ukulele and Sarah Cramer’s bass leading into a “Stick it to the man!” anthem that’s revisited with “Jump Back” with a soulful, funk-influenced bent. The romantic songs serve as a counterpart to the funky numbers scattered throughout April’s Empire. “Pocket Petal” brings forth the romanticism that underscores all of King’s songwriting in a sweet, snappy number tinged with bells and oohs. “The Way” is a smooth, sixties pop influenced song, with lots of bop-ba-dahs moving forward underneath patient drums.
“Van Gogh-Gogh” is an old delight of mine from Duke of Uke’s shows (look for the synchronized dancing!), and on April’s Empire is Duke of Uke at their most playful, mixing wordplay with a hip-shaking beat for a catchy, crowd-pleasing song that always elicits a smile. It’s followed by “Claire’s Song,” which has emerged as an unexpected favorite for me, perhaps because of the simplicity and clarity of its refrain: “When everyone runs in to hide, she runs outside, she runs outside.” It’s a testament to the band’s songwriting that they can master both the clever and the candid with such authenticity.
So what is the story that Duke of Uke is telling? It’s one of antithesis, of the lovely and the low moments in life, a celebration of opposition and contrast. April’s Empire certainly has its sweet and its sassy moments. It sways back and forth between funky, horn-heavy tracks and light, lady-led numbers. It roars with an untouchable fierceness, then pauses to bask in the sweetness of life. It’s playful, it’s soulful, and it’s worth every minute.
Duke of Uke will release April’s Empire this Saturday at the Highdive, with doors opening at 7 p.m. Whether you’re a committed fan or a total stranger, a lover of classical music or indie rock, bringing your granddad or your kids, you’ll find something to love in Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra.