TO BE A SOUTHERNER—a white Southerner, at least—is to forever straddle an endless dividing line, one that separates competing contradictions and incompatible juxtapositions: past and present; city and country; us and them. Proponents of the Stars and Bars love to say of their beloved banner, "It's heritage, not hate," but even they know the truth: It's both. Synthesis and accretion. That's what it's all about. Just ask the archetypical Southern Man, Ronnie van Zandt. He'll answer you silently from beyond the grave, within any one of the dozens of photographs in which he proudly wears a Tonight's the Night shirt tight across his compact, barreled chest. It's both.
Paul Duncan hails from the edge of the Piney Woods region of East Texas, where that state begins its lazy, humid segue into Louisiana. He lives in the sub- and pan-cultural particle accelerator that is New York City. And as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, he is one of the most versatile and forward-thinking talents you're likely to encounter.
In the foreground of Paul's music you'll hear his lilting, intricate guitar and piano work. The songsmithing is bold and confident; often melancholic, sometimes exuberant, and occasionally—and this is the sign of true inspiration—both at the same time. It's reminiscent of some of the great rebel songwriting of the late 1960s and 1970s. Lyrically, he observes brief moments from the woods, lakes, highways and tousled beds of a private America, opaque aural Polaroids that fade first and ask questions later. All around is the reassuring presence of slide and steel guitars, emblematic of the South for just about the entire 20th century.
Listen. Then listen closer. Enveloping Paul's work is a subtle cloak of very modern, very sophisticated experimental composition. Duncan isn't simply a brilliant singer/songwriter for the what's-analog? age; he's a brilliant singer/songwriter who is aggressively subsuming the most vital and vivid elements of today's avant-garde scene into the traditions of raw Americana, a.k.a. Southern music. Surrounding himself with an extraordinarily gifted and prominent group of musicians, improvisers and composers, Duncan incorporates elements of free improvisation, laptop sheen, and good-ol' electronica grit, and does so seamlessly. His subtlety and finesse approach that of mid-90s era Jim O'Rourke, yet he never diverts the listener's attention from the song itself.
And that voice.
It's a doleful tenor, pure like black, tannin-rich swamp water, undulating slowly in the cypress shade. It's a voice in which a man can drown his sorrows in brotherly commiseration, and a woman can—well, it's a voice in which a woman can float adrift in languid caress.
Paul Duncan's creative accomplishments are incontrovertible, but just what is his music? Is it avant-garde innovation or 70s-era rock? Is it beholden to Southern roots or a cosmopolitan milieu? Is it the sound of a dirge, or a paean?
It's dusk. Maybe you're on a Brooklyn rooftop, Manhattan lights twinkling in the distance; maybe you're deep in the East Texas woods, fireflies pulsating in slow, spasmodic flight. Either way. Lie down, close your eyes, open your ears, and listen. Absorb. The coarse, mechanized rasp of the frogs and crickets; the gentle murmur of the cars and trucks as they float across the sky along the Williamsburg Bridge? They all know the answer.