As the man behind Black Hen Records, Vancouver-based Steve Dawson, a master of virtually any stringed instrument one can think of, has been the creative force behind some very successful roots-music releases over the past few years. He’s produced and played on four well-received discs by noted singer Jim Byrnes, and was responsible for a recent multi-artist tribute to The Mississippi Sheiks, a project that warranted a live recording and video release as a follow-up.
In short, he’s a very busy guy indeed, yet still finds time for occasional solo releases. Nightshade, an all-original-save-one collection, finds him working with his own core band, anchored by drummer Geoff Hicks and bassist Keith Lowe. Also on hand is Chris Gestrin on keys, including piano, Wurlitzer, moog, organ, and phillicorda (a long-out-of-production portable organ manufactured by Philips in the ’60s and early ’70s).
Dawson himself plays a bewildering array of instruments, including many types of guitars–acoustic, electric, 12-string, national steel, and slide–in addition to mandotar, marxophone, mellotron, and melodica. (The credits list even more, but that’s a pretty representative sample of the man’s abilities and esoteric interests.)
The overall sound is roots-rock, leaning a bit more to rock than roots. Despite the exotic instrumentation, the sound is relatively conventional. Dawson’s taste is unerring, and he prefers subtle surprises rather than blatant exhibitions of esoteric dexterity.
Production plays a large part in the project’s success, to be sure, but it’s always about the song itself rather than the technical or instrumental wizardry–there may be a dense cushion of sound to support the songs, but the goal is an appropriate mood rather than an impressive display.
If there’s a weak point here, it’s Dawson’s pleasant but ultimately unremarkable vocals. Despite backing vocals on most tunes–Jill Barber on the majority, with Jeanne Tolmie and Alice Dawson appearing as well–his voice simply isn’t strong enough to pack quite enough oomph into the proceedings over the long run.
Taken track by track, he’s fine, though there’s a certain emotional detachment in his delivery; he’s more observer then participant, as though he’s commenting on the subject material rather than being subject to it. And the aggregate effect might be a little too disengaged to draw listeners in.
Still, Dawson’s production genius and tightly focused songwriting are more than enough to keep things interesting. His writing explores darker themes that are perfectly framed by the dreamy soundscapes Dawson constructs. It may fail to stir the emotions, but Nightshade is sonically enthralling, and Dawson’s compositions are invariably stimulating. As befits the evocative title, the project is pervaded by a restless sense of disorientation and vague, shapeless menace, like a sleepless night when darkness takes the soul and personal demons gain the upper hand.
All music is suited to time and place and mood. This one’s a perfect soundtrack for a sleepless night when it seems like the morning will never come … at the right time. And if you’re in the right mood, it’s a masterpiece!