English guitarist and singer Richard Dawson debuted quite unremarkably with
Sings Songs and Plays Guitar (Downbeat, 2007), a collection of
simple songs (the standout being perhaps the
rather conventional romantic serenade I Will Make It Up To You which
is almost reminiscent of Kenny Rogers).
He then composed
Motherland (Pink Triangle, 2008), the soundtrack to a theatrical
play, that attempts a broader spectrum of styles, even including a
dance-club pulsation in Gravel Flame to accompany a shamanic invocation.
Dawson stretched the duration of his songs on
The Magic Bridge (Pink Triangle, 2011), but the duration is pretty
much the only thing that stands out. The likes of
Man Has Been Struck Down By Hands Unseen require a lot of patience.
The concept The Glass Trunk (2013) was inspired by the historical
archive of a museum. The main change in Dawson's music consisted in drafting
a number of collaborators, ranging from vocalists to harp players.
That experience somehow caused a dramatic shift in style.
The two juggernauts of
Nothing Important (Weird World, 2014) are sandwiched between the
gloriously cubistic blues lament Judas Iscariot, definitely worthy of
Captain Beefheart, and
the Zen-like instrumental Doubting Thomas, both titled after the Gospels.
Past the tedious and self-indulgent 16-minute litany of Nothing Important
(which, at best, offers,
midway, a brief guitar solo that is actually melodic and folkish a` la Leo Kottke, and then
another delightful guitar solo 12'30" into the song), one reaches the real
highlight, the 16-minute The Vile Stuff in which
rabid guitar riffs and voodoo beat prop up a king of melismatic singing that
was more typical of the Canterbury school's prog-rock than of folk troubadours,
and whose finale's mind-bending cacophony could be the starting point for
Peasant (Weird World, 2017) is a concept album that imagines the lives of the inhabitants of the long-lost Anglosaxon kingdom of Bryneich during the medieval centuries just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
It is an odd, and rarely successful, experiment, clumsy in the way it delivers
the best melodies:
during the seven-minute Beggar he sounds like a
drunk imitating the aria of a Broadway musical;
the other seven-minute song, Ogre, tries to blend
Renaissance-inspired instrumental parts and a choral singalong;
Weaver is a relatively straightforward lullaby but sounds like
it was performed by an amateur street band.
All in all, the album fares better in the simpler songs:
the loud, sprightly, cacophonous march-like singalong Scientist;
and the snapping syncopated dance Shapeshifter, in which he switches from falsetto to baritone singing.
The eleven-minute Masseuse is emblematic of the problem, as it alternates between interesting and tedious. The singing adopts the austere prog-rock declamation of folk-inspired groups such as the Strawbs and Jethro Tull, but then digresses into the tone of a delirious madman from the mental asylum, and both impersonations are as distant as possible from the medieval bard, and it is routinely buried in a children's choir. The guitar playing (or, better, string-plucking) is so dissonant that sometimes it resembles the ticking of a defective wallclock and sometimes the banging of kitchen pots, more akin to the avantgarde of Derek Bailey than to folk music.
Too much of 2020 (2019), his most traditional effort yet, sounds like an excerpt from a
Broadway musical, almost like a poor man's Riverdance, for example the
folk dance of Civil Servant and
the trivial folk-pop of Two Halves. Such a melodic approach needs
a vocal rendition that is slightly more original
(like in The Queen's Head) to deserve attention.
The catchy, stomping, heroic Dead Dog In An Alleyway and the
seven-minute ode Jogging, that incorporates heavy-metal guitar and even a synth,
stand out, but are hardly revolutionary.
It's easier to mention the wasted opportunities: the eight-minute
Black Triangle that begins with a
boogie locomotive and ends with whirling hysteria a` la
Guns N' Roses but in between it's just
a limping monotonous rant;
or the ten-minute dystopian mini-rock opera
Fulfilment Centre, with
robotic voices, Middle-eastern invocations and chaotic free-jazz improvisation.
They could have been great but something is missing to make them really work.
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