Duke McVinnie

I was in the grocery store looking through guitar magazines when I spotted one of those “super unknown guitar greats” type articles and, surprise of surprises, this Duke McVinnie guy being profiled sounded really interesting. Come to find out I may have never heard of Duke by name but I, like you, have heard him. He’s made music for movies like Kill Bill Part II and The Bodyguard as well as a ton of recordings stretching as far back as 1987. I tracked down Duke at his homepage (www.dukemcvinnie.com) and asked him to send me some music and he was nice enough to shoot me a couple of disks: Sex & Death (2003) and Stitches (2004) by Flying Lessons – Duke’s new band.

After several weeks of listening I’m here to tell you, folks, if you in the market for interesting, thoughtful, quirky, and original rock with all sorts of cultural references ranging from mountain banjo, angular downtown jazz, industrial noises, ambient chill, David Lynch-approved tremolo guitars, gritty rural blues, and salsa-dripping Tex Mex grooves then run, don’t walk, to get a copy of either Sex & Death or Stitches. Practically every McVinnie song is a textbook study on the evocative use of effects and the fine art of weaving elements from different genres and styles. That Duke has a cinematic aesthetic is evident throughout his music; it’s easy to project a montage of scenes and characters into his music.

The gem among jewels on Sex & Death is “Nothing Lasts” (track four) with its super- chilly guitar arpeggios, single line punctuation marks, and lowdown vibe. This song was made for riding through the Southwest desert late at night with the top down on a ’73 Cadillac convertible.

The production quality on Sex & Death is very high due in part, no doubt, to the mastering provided by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound. The musicianship and recording is top notch. Tone freaks and studio experimenters will love deconstructing this album. For example, the song “Cannons” (track nine) has what sounds like an eerie opera playing behind a simple rock groove. In isolation each element would probably be unremarkable but together, the effect is really unusual and cool. In fact, I think cool is the one word to summarize Sex & Death. The whole album, from start to finish, is just cool in a way that other records are not.

Stitches, by Flying Lessons (all songs written or co-written by McVinnie) feels like the logical extension of Sex & Death but the instrumentation is more broad and the range of emotions is, in my opinion, even deeper. There are some nice piano moments and what I guess is lap steel textures added to the mix. I also picked up on an overt 50’s element (in the song “Plan B” for example) that solidifies my feeling that McVinnie is uniquely talented in synthesizing the various artifacts of popular culture – I mean, really, how many times have you heard a song or even a whole album that can conjure up in the mind’s eye images of Roy Orbison on black and white TV, Lost Highway, Hendrix circa 1969 waiving his freak flag high, and Baudrillard’s America? When I listen to McVinnie’s music that’s the kind of experiences I have and I suspect that each person will have his or her own unique interpretations.

Whereas every song on Stitches is superb there are a few personal favorites: “Wadayasay?” (track four) is one of those classic set-ending tunes featuring an infectious, Paladins-like riff with some absurdly great drumming that all comes to a gut- wrenching, sliding, tumbling conclusion. It makes you feel like you’ve witnessed a bad, walk-away accident on a road to nowhere and you’re telling the state trooper “Yeah, I saw the whole thing...” And “Caller I.D.” (track three) is simply one of those rare pieces that gets everything right – great melodies, compelling harmonic changes, a hook, groove, vibe, and professional musicianship.

If it’s possible, Stitches is even better than Sex & Death. Both are five-star efforts worthy of large audiences. I seldom gush about albums but both of these records need to be in your collection. To me, Duke McVinnie is kind of like Bill Frisell: knowing that this guy is out there restores a person’s faith in American music.