The ‘Eyes Up Here' EP by Duck Thieves

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The ‘Eyes Up Here' EP by Duck Thieves

Review

As I've said before, I'm obliged that Duck Thieves provide their own self description for the aid of potential audience members & reviewers: while I like a challenge (and that probably makes for a better review), I'd never have come up with "Indie Panto pop and punk performance art" if left entirely to my own devices.

It's this insouciant individuality which endears them to audiences (they've played Coventry Pride, the Main Stage at the Godiva Festival and supported The Specials at Coventry Cathedral so it's not just a cult niche they occupy) yet beneath the playfulness always lurks more profound concerns. "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" someone once alleged & perhaps Duck Thieves were listening.

The only thing to perhaps set against their thankfully regular live performances is the rather large gaps between releases: this is their first since lockdown. I enjoyed a discussion on the matter with Justin Wing Chung Hui of the band at the recent Septic and the Tanks album launch: I suggested the issue reflected a high standard of care in composition: he rather more self deprecatingly felt that it was because he was a slow writer.

Their ‘Eyes Up Here' EP (produced by Mason Le Long) which comes out on 6th April 2024 with a launch party at the LTB Showrooms with Project Overload and Creaking Twitch in support is possibly the band at it's most polemical in terms of what they are singing about, yet in classic Duck Thieves delivery mode.

It might even be a concept EP, the theme of which could be summed up as a manifesto of "how to live your life right". Part of that is the sound: which suggests optimism and carpe diem. The other part is the lyrical content which pretty much offers a set of "you don't want to do it like that" illustrations which not only contrasts with the music, offering a powerful duality & tension (I love it when writers do that) but over all creates a dialectic (ditto).

The songs ("I'm Not a Virus", "Eyes Up Here", "Geeks Make Better Lovers", "City of London Love" and "For the Love not the Money") for the most part are unflinching in their assaults on things which at worst outrage them & even at best tend to disappoint them: misogyny, racism, oppression, stereotyping, judgementalism & dumping people all take their turns in the intense glare of the Duck Thieves' spotlight.

Within its beam, you need to be quick witted though: if you want to grasp each song in its entire glory, not allowing yourself to dance like a Duck Thief or anyone else for that matter to the exclusion of comprehension, you do need to focus your ears & brain on the words, regardless of what your feet may be doing.

Despite Justin's modesty, clearly a lot's gone into the words: both the quality of wit & metaphor and the sheer number: you get plenty for your money.

They don't pull punches and possibly people might call this their best work: I certainly would not argue with that.

Album opener "I'm Not a Virus" is the anti-racist one mentioned above and is a response to the prejudice the media stirred up against East Asian people as a result of COVID19. Its direct inspiration is the French #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus campaign in response to newspaper headlines such as "Yellow Peril".

Switching between section of punk fuelled anger & hurt ("Why am I the story? I'm not a fucking virus") and the classic Duck Thieves subversive responses in a party format ("We'll infect you with our sick tunes/We'll infect you with our dance moves/We'll infect with our killer grooves/That's how we'll infect you"), the track is clarity itself.

The title track is cut from similar uncompromising cloth and is built around a litany of misogynistic comments which Michelle has had aimed at her face: and her chest. Consequently the patriarchy gets it with both barrels and its witless, demeaning rhetoric is hurled back in contempt (you'll need to listen to "Eyes Up Here" yourselves for those sections as I don't particularly wish to repeat them) accompanied by statements of intent ("Eyes up here!/Cuz ya time is up/Cuz we had enough/Eyes up here!/Cuz we're now fed up/And we're getting tough/Eyes up here!/Calm down dear/ Let's see more of that rear/ Eyes up here!/We're sick of your shit!/Stop staring at my tits!"). I defy anyone to consider that to be a mixed message. I like the way the band use the vocal resources available to them to deliver the problems in male voices and the responses in female. Musically it's classic punk agit-pop as direct as say Crass and that's not something you hear enough of.

"Geeks Make Better Lovers" brings a more recent musical template to the EP with a grinding rock tune to set a sardonic review of various cliches & stereotypes of how we should present our bodies & behaviours that through amplification via the ever-expanding media become restrictive on our individuality and eventually cause distress when people cannot adhere to them nor acquire the items which signify materialistic "success".

"City of London Love" alters the tone: we've moved from anger to sarcasm & arrive now at sadness: the loss of a lover, though even this bitter-sweet tale is made more astringent by the termination of the relationship being carried out via intermediaries. That's not nice & unfortunately it's apparently a true story of what happened to Justin.

It's the most poetic cut on the EP and the narrative (with colder sections from the third parties contrasting with the idealistic voice of the protagonist) sits on the most gentle, melodic arrangement here. A sort of male version of a Lily Allen (at her least sweariest) track.

Closer "For the Love Not the Money" return us to where we (sort of) started in the Far East and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Duck Thieves connect their own motivation of making their music for love rather than commercial gain with the smears aimed at some of the protesters (Carrie Lam, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong are specifically name checked) that they were being paid to do so. (In fact allocating one verse each to these activists reminds me a little of "Jail Guitar Doors" by The Clash who use a similar structure).

Yet again the sound contrasts with the other tracks: this one is a sombre, electro-orientated arrangement with the voices going down more classical routes: choral & operatic. These help to place the song at the "more in sorrow than anger" end of the EP's spectrum and add profundity to their tour d'horizon of our world today. It's an ambitious piece given what they are trying to do and they pull it off with aplomb: again time well spent in preparation.

The other spectrum within the EP is of polish: the earlier tracks resound with such fury that they come across almost improvised: outpourings of instinctive rage. Things have calmed down sufficiently by the time "For the Love Not the Money" comes around to sound much more considered, though I imagine similar amounts of care and thought went into them all. However this range again provides the EP with excellent diversity and stylistic variety.

Duck Thieves articulate what's in their hearts and minds and do so both unambiguously & with charm. This strong connection with their own truths (and there's quite a range of these even within a five song collection) provides the fire burning within each track: it also frankly makes a reviewer's life easier. All too often I come across what seem to me to simply be exercises in songwriting without any genuine feelings on the writer's part (these don't ever end up in reviews as I can't find anything positive to say about them, however classy the outcome of the exercise might appear). Give me truth & emotional intelligence every time. Like Duck Thieves do with ‘Eyes Up Here'.

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