You have to admire the tenacity and dedication of a musical artist who has been plugging away at his craft for more than 20 years and hasn’t quite made it to the national spotlight. Once you listen to the latest album from Seattle-based singer-songwriter Tom Dyer, I Ain’t Blue Anymore, it is clear that popular success probably isn’t his greatest priority. This is not what you would call pretty music. Some of it sounds strange, some dissonant. If sometimes it seems unpolished, you need to remember that polish only covers the surface. It is raw with the depth of heartfelt passion, and raw passion is never very pretty.
Dyer’s voice is not pretty, but then Bob Dylan’s voice is not pretty. Tom Waits’ voice is not pretty. One of Dyer’s earliest influences as he points out in his album notes was the blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, and his voice isn’t pretty either. Dyer sings with grit and the raspy growl of experience. It is the voice of the blues, and although he claims he’s not “really sure you would call this a blues album,” he says it is “a blues-inspired album, that is for sure.” And with a couple of exceptions among the album’s 13 tracks, blues seems to me an apt description, and quite good blues at that.
Most of the tunes are Dyer originals, some going back as far as 1979 and 1980. The lyrics of “There Be Killin’ (In My Town)” have been updated to deal topically with a terrible spike in killings in Seattle in 2012. Dyer’s vocal echoes the horror of the killings. It is a nice marriage of style and content, sound and sense. The same is true of “Rollin’ On the Clay” which he calls a “post-apocalyptic vision…with a beat” and climaxes in appropriate musical cacophony. These are the kinds of dark songs that work well with Dyer’s voice. “The Day I Died” closes the album with another dark gem.
The album includes three covers: Captain Beefheart’s “Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or the Big Dig),” “The Witch” by The Sonics, and what I think is my favorite song on the album, Son House’s “John The Revelator.” While it doesn’t have the crisp spiritual quality that defines the Son House version for me, it has an intensive work song vibe that drives the song’s intensity. It evokes images of the chain gang. It is an exciting take on this traditional classic.
Dyer, something it would appear of a guitar and string nut, plays everything on all tracks, everything including banjo, ukulele, baritone guitar, resonator, mandolin and that’s only a partial list. There are two instrumentals on the album. On “Pass the Jug,” which he calls a “palate cleanser,” he plays two different kinds of uke, but adds some counterpoint from a charango, a 10-string ukulele from Peru. “I Am Fretless” has him, you guessed it, playing fretless guitar and it has an Indian or Middle-Eastern sound. Both add a bit of variety to the album.
Clearly Dyer and his music will not appeal to everyone, and that’s a shame. There is an honest earthiness to his work that is both refreshing and compelling. If you like your music raw and stripped down to its essentials, you’ll want to give I Ain’t Blue Anymore a listen.