Duncan Sheik: Whisper House
A brainwavez.org Music Review

United States of Americaby Jase Luttrell
Posted: 8 April 2009

Whisper House, Duncan Sheik's enigmatic sixth studio album and a collaboration with Holly Brook is probably best described as a 10-track experimental narrative journey with a supernatural edge that touches on various themes, including World War II and grief.

Duncan Sheik: Whisper HouseAfter a preliminary listening of Duncan Shiek's latest album Whisper House I was, admittedly, confused and feeling as though I didn't "get it". Whisper House is a far departure from Sheik's previous efforts and is no doubt influenced heavily by his recent experiences writing the music and some lyrics for the Tony-Award-winning Broadway Musical Spring Awakening.

Whisper House centres on the story of young Christopher whose father was in the Air Force and was shot down during World War II. After his mother goes insane with grief he is forced to take the train to live with his Aunt Lily, who resides in a lighthouse in Northeastern America. Lily is a rigid and lonely woman, terrified of the unknown, but has an old Japanese immigrant by the name of Yasu living with her in the lighthouse and working for her. Christopher suspects Yasu of being a spy, and he is haunted by four ghosts that only he can see. The ghosts, when they were alive, formed a band that played on an ocean cruise liner that sank in the early 1900s. Both Duncan Sheik and Holly Brook (previously reviewed on brainwavez.org) are members of the ghost band, and they provide a running commentary on the storyline, the characters, and their thoughts.

The album opens with the exceptional track "It's Better To Be Dead". This track serves as the perfect introduction to the characters, the story, and the historical background. Sheik and Brook take turns with the lead vocals, explaining each character and the character's back story. The music slowly builds as strings, bass, woodwinds, piano, and, finally, percussion, are added to Sheik's acoustic-guitar strumming. When the song reaches its crescendo just before the two-minute mark, the listener knows that this is a powerful and well-crafted song. Undoubtedly, the ghosts are telling the story of each character, and trying to convince the listener that each character is better off dead, though the listener isn't given any particular reason for their justification, except that it is "good to be a ghost, but it's better to be dead". Duncan Sheik's vocals through the track are very strong and powerful but the real treat is Holly Brook; on her debut album her voice was quiet and soft but as a guest artist on Whisper House her voice sails above Sheik's in striking harmony.

The second track, "We're Here To Tell You", centres on Christopher telling Aunt Lily about the ghosts he sees, and her response that ghosts are not real. The ghosts then visit Christopher again telling him that they are indeed real, and that Christopher has other things to fear, such as the war and the seemingly imminent apocalypse. The track employs the use of electric guitars and brass, and is far catchier than the previous track, but overall is nothing memorable or outstanding.

"And Now We Sing" is one of the album's unique tracks. It features Holly Brook singing predominantly, while Duncan Sheik provides the harmony vocals. It also features rich orchestral elements enveloping simple guitar finger-picking. The song tells the story of the ghosts and their lives before the cruise ship went down. Mainstream music listeners will find this song less accessible because of its unique chord constructions and especially because the final two minutes of the song consists solely of brass instruments playing a rendition of the melody. Still, the song is beautiful and striking as a stand-alone track, but is drowned out by the rich production of the other tracks.

"The Tale Of Solomon Snell", while unique, whimsical, artistic, and catchy, is also slightly annoying. The overall story of Solomon Snell doesn't fit with Christopher's story, but focuses on a man who believes that trusting people is the "road to hell". After a failed marriage and a robbery, he eventually catches yellow fever and is mistakenly buried alive. The verses are melodic and beautiful, and accentuate the bouncy feel of the music, but the chorus is absolutely grating, with its high-pitched organ and repetitive lyrics.

The album's first single, "Earthbound Starlight", is a simple and gentle song, and is a much-welcomed reprieve from "The Tale Of Solomon Snell", but it is not a striking song in any way, and is an odd choice for a single. The accompanying music video (which can be found on the web site under "Videos"), follows the animation of the album's liner notes but is otherwise inappropriate for "Earthbound Starlight". Simply, it is a beautiful song, but is not memorable either musically or lyrically.

The up-tempo "Play Your Part" is one of the few songs on the album that can serve as a stand-alone track. While it is befitting of the thematic elements and overarching storyline, it is also one of the few songs that speaks to the modern era about everyone's position in life and how everyone has a role to play. The lyrics centre on Sheik giving advice to someone (most likely Christopher), and his advice uses metaphors of acting and theatre to get his point across. However, his advice is cautionary, with the lyrics "and never stray" meaning that we all need to stay in line and not disrupt the flow of order and organisation.

"You've Really Gone And Done It Now" is the only song that mirrors the darkness of "Better To Be Dead". The lyrics focus on how Christopher is merely a child, and really echo how he must feel after losing his father and mother. Unfortunately, the song also mirrors "The Tale Of Solomon Snell", in the chorus lyrics "that doesn't look good, doesn't bode well", because Sheik's voice is strained as he tries to hit the higher notes, and the overall melody doesn't fit with the melody of the verses. The music mainly centres around an electric piano playing simple eighth-note chords, while several woodwinds play a soothing legato triplet melody. The song also evokes "And Now We Sing" because of its final symphonic ending that slowly fades into the audible distance.

"How It Feels" is another song that easily fades from memory, though it is a beautiful song. It makes great background music, even though the lyrics attempt to reconcile the despair Christopher is feeling. Holly Brook's voice is ethereal and absolutely shiver-inducing during the bridge, and it is this moment that the listener is reminded that ghosts are telling the story.

The final two tracks "I Don't Believe In You" and "Take A Bow" are the two songs that should have been released as singles (and perhaps they will be). "I Don't Believe In You" is dark and moody, but it is also powerful, Sheik's voice is strong and powerful, and the music is simplistic and accessible. "Take A Bow" is more pop heavy than any other track on the album, and is one of two up-tempo songs that is also accessible. It also continues with the metaphor of the stage and acting first heard in "Play Your Part".

Though the album is available on iTunes and as digital downloads, the album liner notes are exceptional. The artistic illustrations and art directions are clever, unique, and really evoke the feel of "Better To Be Dead" and some of the more powerful songs. The album's accompanying web site is very reminiscent of the album liner notes, and includes videos, animations, and more background to the overall story of Christopher and his plight.

It is rumoured that Whisper House will soon become a play, and that musical selection from the album will be included in the production. It will be very interesting to see which songs make the cut, and how the playwrights will develop the story more to connect the themes of World War II, espionage, ghosts, death, and grief into a critique of present-day situations.

The album's tracks "Better To Be Dead", "We're Here To Tell You", and "Earthbound Starlight" can currently be streamed at Duncan Sheik's official web site. Be sure to explore the album's accompanying online multimedia section, which features illustrated snippets from the album's story.

brainwavez.org Opinion
Rating: 6/10

Key Facts
Artist: Duncan Sheik
Title: Whisper House
Format: Audio CD, Downloadable Album
Release Date: 27 January 2009
Genre: Pop
Album Credits:
  Niall Acott: String Arrangements
  John Barclay: Trumpet, Piccolo Trumpet
  Mat Bartram: Assistant Engineer
  Holly Brook: Vocals, Vocals (Background), Performer
  Nick Bucknall: Clarinet, Soprano Chalumeau, Clarinet (Bass)
  Greg Calbi: Mastering
  Kevin Garcia: Percussion, Drums
  Simon Hale: Conductor, Brass Arrangement, Woodwind Arrangement, Wind Arrangements
  Mike Hornett: Music Preparation
  Gerry Leonard: Guitar, Performer
  Klaus Lyngeled: Illustrations
  Duncan Sheik: Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals, Producer
  Roxanne Slimak: Creative Director
  Mike Tudor: Engineer, Mixing
  Richard Watkins: French Horn

On The Internet
Official Album Page: Whisper House
Whisper House Elsewhere: allmusic | ARTISTdirect | Rhapsody | Wikipedia

Elsewhere On brainwavez.org

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