Personnel: Liela Moss (vocals, harmonica, piano, percussion); Oliver Betts (guitar, piano, organ, glockenspiel, drums, percussion); Luke Ford, Toby Butler (guitar, piano, organ).
Audio Mixer: Andrew Scheps.
Three years on from the brilliant eclecticism of Neptune, which spanned the barn-burning rockers the Duke Spirit were already known for as well as Motown-inflected pop and fragile folk ballads, the band focused on its obvious strengths with the aptly named Bruiser. "Cherry Tree" and "Procession" open the album with proof that Liela Moss and company know how to deploy their low-slung brand of rock efficiently and effortlessly at this point. And while harder and heavier sounds dominate Bruiser, the album actually has more shades in its songwriting than are first apparent. Things get interesting on "Don't Wait," where a lilting pop melody battles with tense percussion that gives way to visceral riffs and beats in the chorus, and on "Bodies," which maintains a hypnotic pull as it shifts from a satisfying throwdown to just a piano and Moss' vocals. Indeed, she remains the band's most valuable asset. Over the course of Bruiser, she elevates what could have been standard rock fare; brings a sensuous purr and unexpectedly jazzy vibrato to "Surrender"'s crashing drums and chords; and shows off her crooning side on the stunning "Northbound," which recalls the tumbling heft of the Neptune highlight "This Ship Was Built to Last" as it sprawls from heavy to tender and back again. Bruiser also boasts a decidedly darker tone than any of the Duke Spirit's previous work. Moss intones "abandon all your merry plans" on "De Lux," adding an ominous cast to the guitar arpeggios and pianos twinkling behind her like falling snow; "Running Fire"'s sleek rock could be the theme to an `80s action movie, and lyrics like "I have a feeling the feeling won't last/I still wear black" reveal the thoughts of its jaded heroine. Slicker production also makes the album stand apart from the band's other efforts, sometimes because it renders "Everybody's Under Your Spell" more generic than it might have otherwise been, and sometimes because it gives the lovely final track, "Homecoming," the widescreen treatment it deserves. Despite its focused approach, Bruiser ends up being more uneven than Neptune or Cuts Across the Land; there are many strong songs here, but more of the Duke Spirit's earlier adventurousness would have come in handy. ~ Heather Phares