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Sheik returns with “Whisper House”

Analise Lipari | Sunday, February 15, 2009

Even if Duncan Sheik is barely breathing, his newest album, “Whisper House,” shows that he’s still in musical control.

Sheik is a singer-songwriter best known for his 1996 hit single “Barely Breathing,” which almost won him a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1998. In the 13 years since that debut, Sheik’s career has taken some surprising turns. “Whisper House” is the artist’s latest foray into film and theater – the album’s 11 tracks are selections from an upcoming stage musical of the same title.

“Whisper House” opens with “Better to Be Dead” the most clearly narrative track on the album. “And though I’m sad to say it/ she would be better off dead,” Sheik sings of one character. He and supporting vocalist Holly Brook alternately describe different characters who, for lack of a better phrase, would be better off dead.

The track’s slow, heavy tone adds to its storytelling sensibilities. As Sheik sings at one point, “Life is naught but pain/ It’s better to be dead/ Release your heavy heart/ Rest your weary head.”

Sheik then eases into “We’re Here to Tell You,” whose creepy tone and waning vocals create the aura of ghostliness that returns throughout the work. “We’re here to tell you/ ghosts are here for good,” he sings. “If this doesn’t terrify you, it should.” Sheik’s voice has a subtle, almost casual quality to it that cab risk boring his listeners, but he toes that line well on “We’re Here to Tell You” and elsewhere on “Whisper House.”

Brook’s vocals are prominent on the album’s third track, “And Now We Sing.” The track helps to establish one of the album’s enduring traits – its sparse, simplistic use of instrumentation. While much of “Whisper House” is based in Sheik’s acoustic guitar, the mellow guitar work is often accented by the trumpet, the bells and the occasional oboe. Two of these appear in “And Now We Sing,” with the oboe wafting through the background of the track. It is the final note of the trumpet, however, that lends an air of loneliness and solitude to the song.

One of the album’s quirkier tracks is “The Tale of Solomon Snell,” the story “of an unfortunate man.” Sheik’s lyrical stylings are at their peak here. His Solomon Snell is no match for his biblical namesake, choosing safety rather than risk. “No matter what you do,” Sheik sings, “you’ll never be safe.” The track’s use of bells adds a whimsical touch to a melancholy track, and the song toys with an almost folk-like feel.

Like others on “Whisper House,” “The Tale of Solomon Snell” also makes use of sparse orchestral elements, and the song is one of several that are vaguely reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. The male-female vocals are soft and harmonic, but Sheik’s rich, distinctive voice anchors the track.

One of the album’s more upbeat pieces is “Play Your Part,” a lighthearted ditty that most clearly echoes Sheik’s past work. Other highlights include “How It Feels,” a slow, dreamlike track that makes effective use of Brooks’ talent, and “Take a Bow,” one of the more energetic selections from “Whisper House.”

The final song, “The Ghost in You,” is a peaceful closing to the album, combining piano elements with soft and swirling vocals. The track is a bonus for the album’s iTunes release.

Sheik, a native of New Jersey and South Carolina, first hit it big with his 1996 self-titled release. Other studio albums include 2001’s “Phantom Moon,” 2002’s “Daylight,” and 2006’s “White Limousine.”

Sheik’s foray into stage musicals is the latest branch of his career. He spent more than seven years working closely with poet and writer Steven Sater on “Spring Awakening,” a musical adaptation of an infamous1891 German play. “Spring Awakening” went on to win eight Tony awards after its Broadway debut in 2007, infused by Sheik’s alt-rock and folk score.

Contact Analise Lipari at alipari@nd.edu