Sunday, 30 August 2009

Dawn Landes - Sweetheart Rodeo Album Review (2009)

The wonderful follow-up to Fireproof from Dawn Landes is a near-perfect example of how to make an album. From an artist who knows her way around a recording studio, has worked as part of a band, as a producer and as a solo artist with a band, Landes weaves stories and tales into subtle vocal melodies and delicate arrangements.

My review for The Music Magazine.

With many well established genres, there are musicians who flirt with the accepted formula. They pick at the edges and circle around trying to find an angle, and when they find it they dip in and out but don't embrace the sounds and textures with full commitment. Country is one of those institutions. And Dawn Landes is one of those musicians. Like the music of Ryan Adams and Josh Ritter, this is the acceptable sound of a genre so sacred that it has nations divided as they choose between Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks, while stalwarts ignore the modern world and put on another Hank Williams single, as dusty and crackling as a slowly fading history. You don't mess with tradition. But it's okay to let it steer you in the right direction.

Sweetheart Rodeo is the follow-up to the brilliant Fireproof. Easily the best song from this album is the astonishing Bodyguard. Nothing on Sweetheart Rodeo comes close but as a complete body of work it is better than the spiky and often dark nature of Fireproof. Landes is much more light-hearted and reflective here. This is the general vibe of the new album and with her sultry vocals, somewhere between the hard directness of Suzanne Vega and the floating softness of Laura Veirs, Sweetheart Rodeo is a pure joy.

Opener Young Girl has a 60s feel, very reminiscent of The Raveonettes, shimmering and dancing through three minutes of slightly uneasy dark overtones. An excellent introduction. Romeo takes a whimsical turn, weaving a nursery rhyme melody through a basic percussion and piano backing. Into the last minute and the lyrical structure descends into a brilliant section of backing vocals and day-dreamy musing. Money In the Bank kicks off with "Money in the bank, the night before you die, what are you gonna buy?" starting the bitter-sweet tale of anti-capitalism. The use of brass and the delicate two-part chorus is simply wonderful.

Love is an odd experimental fusion of sparkling psychedelia and pumping bass, disintegrating into a squeaky mass of sounds and howling vocals. An interesting diversion from the formula. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is the unofficial title track, a full-on rock song swathed in acoustic instruments and startling harmonica with one of the best string-picking 'guitar solos'. Clown is another slice of fun, underpinned with a bontempi 'demo track'. This leads into Wandering Eye, a great example of how vocal melody can augment a simple idea. More harmonica fills the spaces between Landes listing American landmarks and more: " Atlanta and Texarkana, Alabama and Texaco, Mexico and al-fresco...".

Little Miss Holiday is gorgeous story telling of female companionship. "If I'd have known her better, I'd have wrote her name in a little letter, tied some hundred dollar bills together, sugar and spice don't stick together, like girls, working girls, two working girls...". The pace-change in the chorus is a sudden attraction and there is more subtle use of exquisite bass. Dance Area is just over two minutes of vocal perfection and Brighton soars with understatement. The album closes with the short and sweet All Dressed In White, again mixing artificial backing with traditional melodies and wordless vocals.

Sweetheart Rodeo is not as much of a country album as the name would suggest. The misconception also come from the labels provided by the popular press, branding Landes as one of 'the grand old dames of country' which is yet more pigeon-holing for the masses. Sweetheart Rodeo is American through and through but it escapes tags and labels used to explain it's roots thanks to a wonderful modern interpretation of an old-fashioned world. Dawn Landes is a constant revelation and has made another masterpiece of theatre, landscape and storytelling.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

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