When Cuff the Duke appeared out of nowhere in 2002 with Life Stories for Minimum Wage they wowed the few lucky people who actually heard them. The album delivered a much needed kick in the pants to the stagnant alt-country genre. Instead of simply walking down the heavily travelled alt-country road like their peers, Cuff the Duke carved their own path, adding innovative sonic experimentation, deft instrumentals and a punk-like sneer to the tried and true, 4/4, heart on the sleeve stomp typically associated with alt-country.
Three years have passed and the Cuff the Duke are back with their self-titled sophomore album. Here the band has dropped some of their more traditional country influences in favour of a popier sound. Make no mistake, country still plays an important part in their music but the blueprint for this album is more Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection than Graham Parson's Grievous Angel. The most noticeable difference between this album and Life Stories is the increased prominence of the piano. Where Cuff the Duke charged forward with dueling guitars, neither of which were prepared to assume the rhythm role on Life Stories, here they opt for a more casual approach, allowing songs to form around a churning piano. The result is a band less concerned with immediately wowing you but instead giving you the impression they're writing simple pop ditties until you notice the guitars going insane in the background.
The only real problem with this album is the rehashing of "Anti-social," one of the standout tracks on Life Stories. While this version is an improvement over the original, the song hasn't changed enough to justify its inclusion on two albums. Aside from this small complaint, Cuff the Duke have somehow managed to improve upon their debut, retool their sound and remain a vital new face in a tired genre.