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Paul Duncan's Elusive Pop

There's a bright line, in most music, between accessible pop and abstract experimentation, a line many songwriters find themselves on one side or the other of for their entire careers — or at least for the duration of each of their albums. Paul Duncan, whose second CD, Be Careful What You Call Home, is now out on Home Tapes, is unusual in that he straddles that line, deliberately crossing it from track to track and moment to moment. "There's not even two sides to my brain when it comes to that pop and avant-garde," he said, in a recent telephone interview. "They should be together. If you're not being experimental or trying new ideas with what you do, then what's the point?"

A native of Texas, Duncan studied film and sound design at Savannah College in Georgia, and lived in Atlanta throughout most of the writing of his new album. Lately, he makes his home in Brooklyn, rubbing shoulders with an assortment of experimental musicians, including Claudia Deheza of On Air Library and Edward Droste of Grizzly Bear. The concept of home, then, is a multifaceted one for this songwriter, encompassing soft Southern landscapes and gritty Brooklyn streets. "I was trying to make a story album in an abstract sort of way, using home as a reference, and rather than embracing it, looking at it as something that's impermanent, something that you're never satisfied with," Duncan explained.

The stories here are drawn from Duncan's personal experience — "Tired and Beholden" sketches out an argument between two people in a relationship, "Oil in the Fields" implies a trip home for a funeral — but he says he shies away from literal narratives about the things that have happened to him. "The songs start with a lot of different scenarios that I've been in, but then take them out of context and try to find another context for them," he said. "I think there's a lot of music out there, especially in the singer/songwriter genre, where people are like, 'My girlfriend broke up with me.' Or, 'I don't like this person.' Or, 'I'm in love with this person.' I really am not interested in making albums like that at all."

Instead, Duncan wants to leave his songs open to interpretation, so that listeners can interact with the words and melodies and find their own meaning there. "I just think people end up appreciating the music a little bit more, especially over time, when they can listen to it over and over," he said. "Right off the bat, a song shouldn't mean something specific to them. It should just be like a vague ghost of an idea of something that clicks with them."

The result is an album that takes its time to sink in, one that at first may seem fragmentary but gradually reveals an evocative beauty. Duncan remarked that at first he worried when critics said his songs sounded more like pieces of ideas than fully-fleshed out songs, but that, with time, he realized that many of his favorite recordings had the same glancing quality. "Alexander Spence's Oar, for instance, is such a fragmented album," Duncan said. "It's just sketches of ideas. A lot of times you can tell he's improv-ing. He's sort of scat singing and he'll repeat things when he feels like a song should go on longer. He's doing it on the spot. And yet it's one of my favorite albums."

Duncan said that he gets song ideas in flashes — at work, on the street, anywhere — then tries to record the bones of them as quickly as possible. "Usually when I start something I feel like I have to finish it that day or that night... or not finish it," he explained. "Especially with my new album, I tried to keep the idea for each song intact, where I didn't have time to think about it."

After the initial ideas emerge, Duncan spends a long time working out arrangements. For instance, many of the songs for Be Careful Where You Call Home were originally written on an upright piano Duncan had at his Atlanta apartment. "A lot of times, I would subtract the piano part and end up playing them on guitar or get someone to fill it in with a strings part or something like that if I didn't feel like it needed piano," he said.

Duncan's second album has a variety of instruments on it — piano, guitar, bass, drums, banjo, stringed instruments, glockenspiel and others. Yet he said that it was important to him to leave space in the arrangements, so that the songs themselves could shine through. "I think on my first album, I was playing around with arrangement. I was really excited about the fact that 'Oh, wow, you can layer six violin parts and flugelhorn parts, and you can get this great dissonance and resonance going on.'" he recalled. "I think this record was more about placing chords and creating melody."

For instance, "Oil in the Fields," one of the album's most beautiful tracks, was initially arranged with dense layers of strings, trumpets, bells and vibraphone. "It became really sappy," Duncan said, recalling how he pared it back to its current minimal voice and guitar.

Be Careful What You Call Home contains carefully crafted pop songs such as "Tired and Beholden" and "You Look Like an Animal," alongside instrumental interludes. There are, for instance, three "Toy" songs, "Toy Bass," "Toy Piano" and "Toy Guitar," which connect the album's tracks. Though casual listeners and iPod shuffle addicts often skip these cuts, Duncan says, they are an integral part of the album he's made.

"I think that if there is a narrative to that record, it's definitely going back and forth between childhood and adulthood," Duncan said. "'Toy Bass' is the most playful song on the record. It's sort of like the Steve Reich or Terry Riley composition played by a child that can't really play the piano, you know? I intentionally made those very sloppy."

He adds that "Toy Piano" purposefully juxtaposes professionally glossy string parts with fuzzily recorded piano. "Basically it's a transition," he explained. "I think of a lot of the instrumental tracks on that record as sort of transitional between being a kid always and being thrown into adulthood and not wanting to be that, being uncomfortable."

Edward Droste of Grizzly Bear says that Duncan has a unique quality that sets him apart from other songwriters. "Paul is in a genre that has really been heavily beaten into the ground — the singer/songwriter genre," Droste said. "But he just has really beautiful melodies and harmonies, and he's a really skilled guitar player and songwriter. It's rare when you hear songs that are just guitar and bedroom recordings that are this moving. It's really a testament to his skills."

That sparse and home-recorded sound may be changing, however, as Duncan is playing and recording with a full band more often. He's now playing with not just drummer Joe Stickney (who appeared on Be Careful), but Adam Willis and James Elliott of Bear in Heaven as well. Droste, whose band split a bill with Duncan a few months ago, says that Duncan has already progressed well beyond the sounds on his first two albums. "There was definitely some really cool sort of editing, choppy stuff on the first album that they didn't do live," Droste said. "It was more like a full band sound, which I really liked as well. It was a fuller sound with the same kind of tone. You could tell it wasn't just him any more."

Duncan is already preparing to record a follow-up CD with his new lineup. But fans of Be Careful ought to be prepared for something a little different. "The whole thing is going to be recorded live — and it's going to be more country," he said.

Where did that come from? "I just recently went back home, and my dad was playing me some old Carter Family," said Duncan. "I think I came back, this was a few months ago, I sort of came back to New York with this whole different idea, and I told all these guys, we've got to record a country album. That's kind of what we're trying to do. It's going to be weird country. Electronic country."

For more information about upcoming shows and Duncan-related news, check the Home Tapes Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [April 18, 2006]

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