Two and a half albums into their career, you can still draw a straight line through Ducks Ltd.’s discography. Aside from a few extracurriculars and a subtle name change, the Toronto-based duo have stayed true to their core mission of keeping the Kiwi definition of ’80s guitar pop alive and healthy as retroactive interest in subgenres of rock from the following decade continue to dominate our attention.
Yet after a few listens to their new LP Harm’s Way, and with a bit of context from the band, these nine breezy tracks begin to solidify as a project apart from either of their past releases. While the instrumental palette feels familiar from the opening track’s guitar twangs, tight drumming, and mellow vocals, frontman Tom McGreevy and fellow guitarist Evan Lewis fill every crevice of Harm’s Way with ideas inspired by a voracious appetite for new musical discovery far beyond—though certainly still including—The Clean.
From the bright Telecaster sounds of Merle Haggard’s backing band, to the economical lyric-writing of The Weather Prophets and Aussie songwriter Paul Kelly, to the blown-out jangle-pop of early MBV, McGreevy and Lewis aren’t shy when it comes to sharing how the tracks they had on repeat at the time of the album’s recording seeped into the final product. They even appreciated the backing vocal work in Dehd’s recordings enough to borrow co-vocalist Jason Balla for a track while putting the album together in Chicago.
With the LP dropping tomorrow via Carpark, get an early taste for what Harm’s Way has in store by streaming their playlist below with commentary from both Lewis and McGreevy.
Merle Haggard, “The Longer You Wait”
We toured a lot after our last album came out, and few things sound better on a long drive than country music, especially the stuff from Bakersfield. We’ve gotten really into Telecasters over the last few years, and Roy Nichols and James Burton, who play on this track, are legendary Tele players. Their work with Merle on the early Capitol albums is so good and made me want to keep our guitars nice and bright while making Harm’s Way.
Dead Famous People, “Barlow’s House”
I am constantly surprised by how much good music Flying Nun Records puts out. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you’ll find another gem. Propulsive drumming, scratchy acoustic guitars, combo organ, and great lyrics—what more could you ask for?
The Moles, “Bury Me Happy”
When making our last album, Modern Fiction, James Cecil, who mixed it, showed me The Moles’ Untune the Sky album, thinking I’d dig it. I very much did, and it became frequently played in my rotation. The Moles seem like forebears to a lot of the great Australian jangle pop that’s appeared in the last 15 years. It’s direct, well-written, and organically produced guitar music.
The Sea Urchins, “Pristine Christine”
The riff in “Pristine Christine” stands out as one of my all-time favorites. The Sea Urchins, a gem in the Sarah Records roster, deliver this track as one of the best debut singles of all time, both for the band and the label. It’s the essence of blissful ’80s tunes, and a timeless masterpiece.
Tom Verlaine, “Days on the Mountain”
Tom Verlaine is truly unique. He’s such an incredible musician, and his guitar playing has always been a great inspiration to me since I first heard Marquee Moon as a teenager. I’m always going through his solo albums to find things I haven’t heard, and this gem on Words From the Front struck me recently. It marks a departure from his usual style. It has some really interesting synth playing that’s juxtaposed against his enigmatic guitar soloing. I’m sad that he’s no longer with us, but truly grateful he left us so much captivating music.
Johnny Smith, “Tenderly”
Our drummer Jonathan showed me Johnny Smith while we were on tour, and I became obsessed with his music. I love the way he phrases chords. There’s a beautiful sadness to his playing. I doubt I’ll ever come close to being able to play like him, but it’s music like this that continues to inspire me to play guitar. When we were recording the song “Heavy Bag,” I tried to make my guitar sound like his instead of the bright, jangly tones we normally use.
The Clean, “Diamond Shine”
This song rips! The guitar is played in such an interesting way. I love the descending line in the riff, and it really shows me that there’s always a new way to think about playing the instrument. The Clean stands out as one of the best, and will always be a huge inspiration for me when making Ducks’ music.
The Weather Prophets, “I Almost Prayed”
There’s a sort of plaintive simplicity to this song that I really appreciate, and it expresses a sense of place with only a few details. “I watched the swans in diesel river / I struck a match and watched it burn against the night” is such a nicely structured and economical piece of writing. It’s scene-setting, but it has emotional weight, which was something I was chasing on some of these songs. It’s also got a subtle arrangement that builds a lot of tension by adding a few simple layers. That single-note piano line is such a good idea!
Paul Kelly, “From St Kilda to Kings Cross”
There are a few Paul Kelly songs that could be in this spot, but I think this is the one I was the most fixated on when we were working on this record. It’s a perfect song. Fourteen lines of lyrics. Some of them get repeated. There isn’t a single word that doesn’t need to be there, and it manages to be poetic while maintaining a conversational tone using everyday language. There’s this thing that Paul Kelly does really well where he expresses the rich internal lives of regular blokes. It’s empathetic and has a way of elevating feelings that in less capable hands could fall flat. Definitely feels like the kind of songwriting to aspire to. There are some elements of the arrangement that I think influenced how we approached “Heavy Bag,” too.
The Verlaines, “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me”
This song is so over-the-top, but it absolutely works. If I was left to my own devices I think that 100 percent of my musical output would just be trying to remake this song over and over again—so much so that I’m almost certain I’ve put this on influence playlists we made for other publications when our last record came out. I’m doing it again though! You cannot stop me! [Editor’s note: We can, but we won’t!] Just like you can’t stop Graeme Downes from bringing in the whole orchestra for extended periods of this song. Evan (and the paucity of my own abilities as an arranger) has successfully stopped me from bringing in the whole orchestra for extended periods of Harm’s Way, but I managed to get some strings on there.
My Bloody Valentine, “Sunny Sundae Smile”
Evan showed me this EP somewhere pretty early in the process of working on this album. I was thrilled to find out that a band as generally self-serious-seeming as MBV had a slightly goofy, super-twee early period. You can hear shades of what they would become, though, and I was really interested in the idea of this super-fuzzy, blown-out idea of jangle pop (which a few other bands I’m into from that period also do, especially The Shop Assistants). We didn’t go crazy with it, but there are a few moments on the record where we try out something similar.
I really like Dehd, and one of my favorite things about their records is the way they approach backing vocals, which is why we asked Jason [Balla] to help us out with those on our album. This happens in neat ways on a bunch of Dehd songs, but the way the vocal parts interact at the end of this one is a really cool example of what they do.
HARDY, “Beer with My Buddies”
I am multiply on the record at this point as being a big HARDY fan, and a big HARDY fan I remain. One of the best working songwriters, and he’s really on a crazy, 1980-’87 Prince run right now in terms of how hard he’s hitting as both an artist and a songwriter in his particular genre. My favorite area of his output is the HIXTAPE series where he collects a bunch of what he terms “lifestyle songs”—songs about drinking a beer with your buddies on a Saturday night—that he’s written that haven’t found a home in Nashville and releases them as collaborations with various country stars. I love the idea of lifestyle songs, and “On Our Way to the Rave” was an attempt to write one of those in our style that was more reflective of my experience. “Beer with My Buddies” is one of my favorite HARDY songs in that category, and also has a verse about the pandemic that’s so far the best thing anyone has written about it. I will leave you with that verse:
Yeah, I got a TV
Every time I turn it on
The world’s in the john, just bad news again
There’s storms with sand in it
Wars and pandemics
The Lord’s at the door, but before it all ends
All I wanna do is drink a beer with my buddies
Drink a beer with my buddies in the country all night