Matt Duke Acoustic Kingdom Underground EP

Matt Duke, Tony Lucca, Jay Nash perform at McRaney’s Tavern, Sunday December 5, 2010. 8PM/21+/$10. 1566 W Fairbanks Ave, Winter Park.

“When I first started out, I didn’t know what style I was,” says Matt Duke, a South Jersey-born, Philly-based, 24-year-old singer-songwriter. “I still don’t and probably never will.” Matt stands out in an industry that loves to categorize. His second full-length album and first for Ryko, Kingdom Underground, came out in 2008 and rocked a fairly big sound. However, Matt tours primarily as a solo acoustic singer-songwriter, so his fans have come to expect a slightly quieter fare from him, which is how the Acoustic Kingdom Underground EP came about.

“It’s a nice complement to the album,” says Matt. “I’m used to going out and touring solo acoustic and the fans often say, ‘We like the record but we like what your shows sound like too,’ so this is for them. Regarding his Philly-and-beyond fanbase, Matt says: “I have seen blue-hairs, 14- to 18-year-old girls and college kids at my shows. And Myspace has helped exponentially.” Some websites have lumped him in with other artists such as John Mayer and Jason Mraz, which is okay with him.

Matt looks super-young – almost teenage – in photographs, but the sound of his voice and the gravity of his lyrical content make you believe he is an old soul who has been through a lot. “That’s exactly the image I am hoping to project,” says Matt, who incorporates pop, folk, jazz and rock into his repertoire. His stadium-ready Vedderesque voice may have mass appeal, but for now you are more likely to see him in a coffeehouse setting, following in the footsteps of some of his heroes, such as Ani DiFranco and Conor Oberst.

The Acoustic EP features six tracks that were largely inspired by Matt’s literary experiences. Although he dropped out of college after “15 minutes,” he has used many great novels as a jumping-off point for many of his finest tunes.

SIDEBAR on the Acoustic EP tracks:

Kingdom Underground” is the title track from Matt’s 2008 album. The vocals dominate – they are mixed loud over the quiet accompaniment, which adds to the bombastic, overwrought, intense feel to the song. His vocals are beyond emo here; they’re wound so tightly it seems he might break.

Matt says: “This is the end result of me trying to be creative. I wanted to do a concept album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and this song is a re-telling of the creationist story of Adam and Eve, told from the perspective of Satan. It didn’t really fit on the album [Kingdom Underground] but we snuck it on there as a hidden track at the start.”

The Father, The Son and the Harlot’s Ghost” is a melodic should-be, would-be, could-be hit. Again, the trembling vocals are prominent in the mix, the guitar is quiet and gentle and the lyrics are all heaven and hell.

Matt says: “This one is loosely based on a really, really great book called Trinity by Leon Uris. I grew up Roman Irish Catholic and in this book, the protagonist is going through some spiritual unrest and questioning his faith.”

Walk It Off” is an angry and tuneful number chronicling a lovers’ spat. With such raunchy lyrics as “Excitable bitch / You’re screaming!” the song is with fraught with emotions found in actual relationships.

Matt says: “This one is based on my experiences and those of my friends. [The original version] was kind of abrasive and up-tempo, so we made it more somber for the acoustic EP. The guy is still pretty pissed, but he’s deflated and despondent. I hardly ever write break-up songs, but this one ended up being dialogue — the incoherent rambling of two people.”

Sex and Reruns” is an ode to escapism and self-medication via media such as TV and the web – a mighty timely and relevant topic.

Matt says: “I wrote this the day before I left L.A.  Partly inspired by Don DeLillo’s White Noise, it centers around being susceptible to choosing short-term solutions for our long-standing issues. I was thinking about how we avoid the human touch and find comfort in all the wrong things.”

Ash Like Snow” is a serious and earnest track that was originally Matt’s attempt at a holiday tune! (Holidays can be very sad indeed.)

Matt says: “I was stuck in the Nashville airport for 25 hours and I read Ayn Rand’s We the Living, and this song is based on that. Two people lamenting over their city – it’s changing for the worse – and they feel completely helpless. It passed as a holiday song once I likened the embers of crashing buildings to falling snow. That was a creative leap.”

Rabbit” is based on the Harry Angstrom character from John Updike’s Rabbit series, Rabbit Run in particular.

Matt says: “But it’s also based on my personal experiences and how I felt years ago. Harry Angstrom is a total jerk, but you do empathize with him in a perverse way.”