Sacha Mullin


A very fine album, and a lot of music that will make listeners feel emotionally and intellectually involved, in many different ways. For this writer, a beautiful discovery (for which I have no particular merits whatsoever, having found the CD in my mailbox).

First words that come to my mind when presenting Duplex? Voices (many, with very different timbres). Melodies (in a variety of styles, all performed with great confidence). Grand piano (as a timbre, and as a generator of music). Fine dynamic sound (a feature that's increasingly rare nowadays, and a quality that's even more laudable when one takes into account the self-financed nature of this work, which inhabits digital climates).

As an act of prestidigitation, I could make the tag "mainstream" appear, but looking at the charts - what's left of them - shows a very different scenery. I could use an elastic tag such as "leftfield pop", but this album also features such music styles - "Broadway tunes", "40s jazz standards", "operatic arias" - that one could only call "pop" after putting various calendar decades through a mixer.

Of course, Sacha Mullin has a long and varied background, despite being in his (early? mid?) 30s. There's a first album I've never listened to, and various collaborations, some of them quite surprising: Todd Rittmann - co-producer of Duplex, who also mixed and mastered the album - is the same Rittmann that I remember as a member of US indie rock group called U.S. Maple!

As per its title, Duplex is split in two parts. The first five tracks, recorded between April 2013 and November 2015, are dressed in "electronic" and "synthetic" clothes, with fine use of synths and drum machines. The second part, recorded between July 2016 and February 2017, showcases a fine "acoustic ensemble" featuring piano, bass, drums, vocals, and violin and viola adding an orchestral dimension.

Sessions were held all over the map - I almost can see those large quantities of data traveling through the wires - but as proof of the high quality of the writing, listening to this album only shows a mental picture of a group of musicians playing together in a large, comfortable, room with carpeted floors. Digitally recorded, the album went through an analog stage, on tape, at the mastering stage. I bet a vinyl pressing - provided there's a fine pressing at the pressing plant - would give spectacular results.

Possessing a very fine voice makes an artist in danger of falling in love with it, so running the dreadful risk of self-indulgence. And as we know all too well, when an artist turns into a Narcissus, the listener becomes a Sisyphus. With a few minor exceptions - an exaggerated vibrato here, a "golden throat" moment there - I'll say of "danger avoided".

"A difficult mainstream album" is a definition that could originate endless arguments. While sounding so "natural", those melodies on Duplex are often quite knotty, with many twists and turns, curveballs, "mutant chords" changing the shape of a melody, stratified vocal orchestrations (many female vocalists appear, all performing admirably), and a quite sophisticated use of "bridges", a compositional feature that has almost disappeared nowadays.

Still with me? Great! Here's a quick description of the album's tracks.

Intro is the album opener, as per its title; quite brief (only 39"), it's a bacchanal of voices and percussion, with a synth coda taking us to...

Crow, a song that sounds like an homage to the 80s. I hear traces of Hall & Oates as produced by Bob Clearmountain and assisted by Arthur Baker, also those "Fake Motown" songs Made In England arranged by Anne Dudley and produced by Trevor Horn. Of course, in the background one can easily see David Bowie the "crooner" in his "chest voice". Assertive drums, with deep-sounding bass drum and light-sounding snare, staccato piano chords, fine vocal melody backed by female voices, orchestral "stabs" from the synth, and more: the chorus being introduced by ever-changing synthetic drum rolls - even a "syn-drum" at the end of the song - a light-sounding rhythm guitar, counterpoints from an "Oberheim" synth, synthetic bass.

Dive is a highly dramatic track that has spoken moments as its start and close (maybe related to the track Questions, discussed below). A guitar arpeggio - which quite peculiarly reminded me of Dog Eat Dog, Joni Mitchell's "electronic" album - then vocals, a rhythmic figure for bass drum/hi-hat. Fine melodic development of the verses, which take flight and develop. After some "teasing" moments, there's a real "bridge", with a "fractured" rhythm and a melody that almost sounds like a Gregorian chant, which flows towards a held note over a strong rhythm. There's a false ending, a fractured rhythmic interlude, and at the end we're back to the guitar arpeggio and the spoken part.

Eureka has a fine circular figure from the drum machine, a majestic-sounding synth, an "eastern-sounding" vocal melody, and Japanese lyrics (my western ears thought they heard the words "Mon Amour" and "Yawning"). Melodic twists and turns, male and female voices taking turns, a song that only needs to be featured in the right movie soundtrack to make all participants rich. There's also a fine bridge, quite natural-sounding.

Questions is a more conventional song, like Atomic Kitten singing something half-way between The Bangles' Eternal Flame and a "Spanish" version of the Eagles' Hotel California, or something vintage penned by Diane Warren. My judgment may appear a bit too severe, but this song - which in a way works perfectly as "the end to Side One", and as an "earbleeder" - highlights the excellent quality of the original songs featured on the album. (Questions comes to us from So Weird, a Disney serial about which I know nothing.)

Dream Ain't Dead is the only track here that to me sounds a bit too "bombastic". Strong rhythm, piano, dramatic string parts, a bit like a 60s soundtrack, with female vocals and a quite dramatic chorus. Thunderous drums, bass, everything here is "over the top", but - just like those famous 007 movie soundtracks - I suppose these are the rules of the game.

Applejack is another piano-based track, quite a lot lighter than the previous track; fine start from a very "jazz sounding" snare played brushes; then bass, and piano and vocals often performing unison phrases; something in this track reminded me of Ben Folds more "relaxed" side; fine dynamic variations, and a bridge that sounds surprisingly strong rhythmically, with fine backing from female voices. There's a coda showcasing a fine melodic bass, the drums getting back now to the "jazzy"-sounding snare. Then the song fades, a fine musical device.

Fools (Are We) starts with rubato vocals, piano, cymbals. To me, it sounds like a mixture of a 40s jazz standard, a Broadway tune, and something from an opera. The mood constantly changes. A quite fragmented composition, with full, rock-sounding drums. Then it takes a "left turn", with fine female backing. Were it sarcastic instead of dramatic, I'd mention Mose Allison. "Looped melody" at the end, with ostinato.

White Hot Room starts rubato, then the whole turns very dramatic, with violin and viola acting as a string section. It reminded me a bit of "English" period Elton John orchestrally assisted by Paul Buckmaster, or of Scott Walker in his "classic" period. This is the dramatic peak of the album, with female vocals adding more doses of drama.

Accept Treasure ends the album with a lighter mood, with piano and vocals, bass, snare drum played brushes, A very fine, relaxed melody, with female vocals, and multiple violins - played pizzicato and arco - adding a pinch of c&w. Solo piano ends the album.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017 | Sept. 22, 2017