Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2011 -- #92: "Penny" - Duke Junior & the Smokey Boots

Athens' own Duke Junior and the Smokey Boots continued their ascent to a wider audience in 2011. October saw the release of their second album, a self-titled affair, and as always, the band was highly prolific around Ohio, including a first day main stage performance at the Nelsonville Music Festival.

Perhaps the biggest moment for Duke Junior in 2011 -- or at least the moment at which they were the most visible to the general public -- came in March, when the band was selected as a finalist for the Midwest region of Billboard's 2011 Battle of the Bands competition. As part of the contest, one band (out of three) would be chosen by fan votes to move onto a second round, which included the actual band battle performance at Las Vegas' Fremont Street. The winner earned the privilege of performing at the Billboard Music Awards in May.

Despite a respectable showing and heightened support for the band, especially from those in the Athens area, Duke Junior lost out in the first round. But one certainly cannot say that the band didn't gain some newfound visibility. "Penny," from the band's new album, was posted to Soundcloud as part of the Billboard competition, and has garnered well over 2,000 plays to date.

DJSB Penny by aaronlemley

The five-piece has come up with some captivating tunes in the past, but "Penny" is the highest point the band has reached in their relatively short period of existence. From the first notes of the song, an a cappella vocal performed to superb harmonious effect, to singer Jess Kauffman's sweet, smoky vocals to end the track on a slightly calmer note, "Penny" is captivating from start to finish.

The band has never been specifically country, or even alt-country. Though they can at times lean that way, there are other instances in which they take more of a rootsy, Americana rock approach to music. But "Penny" is certainly more of the former, and it suggests that if the band were to create an almost-completely traditional country record, the results would be stunning. Kauffman and fellow vocalist Kyle Martin's tones mix exceedingly well together, reminiscent of today's country superstars Lady Antebellum.

Add in banjo, bluesy country guitar and a train-like drum beat, and you have a song that best exemplifies Duke Junior's talents. I have a good feeling that had Duke Junior gone further in the Billboard competition, we might have been hearing a lot more about them throughout the Midwest, and possibly further. Regionally, they're one of country-rock's rising stars. It will be very interesting to see the career trajectory of this band. But for now, enjoy the sweet, sweet music.

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