If the key to longevity is continual reinvention, Steve Dawson’s career is a case in point. He came to prominence with his indie roots-rock band Dolly Varden, then went solo singer-songwriter under his own name. In 2014 he debuted his latest project, Funeral Bonsai Wedding, which comprises three local jazz players: vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke. The band’s sound is as idiosyncratic as its name, which Dawson pulled from the window of a florist he saw while riding the CTA.
But Funeral Bonsai Wedding’s second album may be the most startling left turn yet. “Last Flight Out” is a collaboration with Chicago-based string ensemble Quartet Parapluie, and the resultant fusion of disparate genres creates a ravishing textural dissonance, thanks to exquisitely sculptural arrangements by Roebke. Track after track, you hear familiar forms in ways that make them seem fresh as paint.
This album is steeped largely in melancholy, and it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a highly empathic songwriter at a cultural moment marked by outright nihilism. The title track opens the album and pits the Quartet’s legato lines against Dawson’s cellophane-textured high tenor, which has a little heart-stopping gasp in its higher registers. And when the minor-key melody resolves into a major chord on the line, “the whole, cold truth is revealed,” it’s such a dazzling surprise that you feel momentary disorientation. It’s equally unexpected when Dawson steps back from the mic and lets vibraphonist Adasiewicz take the melody for the final third of the tune.
“Mastadon,” by comparison, is a Gallic-sounding ballad, with some exquisitely literary lyrics (“and with a blackness you cannot describe / the tendrils pull, the vessels collide / muscle memory sluggish and dull / no will left to sort or divide”); while “However Long It Takes” features an insanely memorable instrumental riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a Brill Building hit single, set irresistibly against a staggered percussion. The tune also features Dawson’s best vocal performance; all successful storytelling is a matter of tension and release, and when Dawson emerges from a carefully navigated melodic inquiry (“Where are you calling from? / I recall your name / Ah, but then again”) to vault into a rapturous bridge, he dissolves the tension in a burst of sonic splendor: “Oh, I am turning / All this beauty is overwhelming me / I am surrendering, I am surrendering, oh.”
Similarly, in “The Monkey Mind Is On the Prowl,” Dawson imparts parental advice to a child (“Well the shit-mouth kids in the field house / With the splits in their sides from the laughter / Don’t you listen, little pancake / Your skin will grow hard / And you will learn to disregard disaster”)—then he pulls the rug out from under you with an emotionally flattening couplet on the bridge: “Your mama would have liked to see / The sunlight gathering at your feet.” The Quartet steals the show here, especially at the end; while Dawson repeatedly croons, “Don’t forget,” the strings leap and pull and strive and kick, mirroring the restless, incandescent energy of the child being addressed; but eventually the two “voices” come into accord—not speaking together, but speaking in concert.
“While We Were Staring Into Our Palms” is less a protest song than a lament for a battle already lost—and the blame, as might be expected, is on our self-trivialization. (“While we were staring into our palms / The safety was released.”) There’s no glimmer of hope in the darkness of Dawson’s vision (“All my life I refused to believe the worst of anyone / That when faced with the truth / Goodness would determine the right thing to be done / I was wrong”) but there is stirring entreaty to embrace, at the last, good for its own sake. “With these final hours / Can we at least / Try to be kind? / Try to be kind / Try”.
The final track, “It’s Not What You Think,” is a lovely, contemplative closer. If I’m reading it correctly, it’s an attempt by the artist to explain his inability to do justice to what goes on in his head—how his expression of his ideas is inevitably at some level a betrayal. “There is no poker face for me / Despite my best attempts / You read me, obviously / But it’s not what you think.”
Dawson’s voice is supple and yearning here, and again, can break your heart a little; especially when, on the line, “But it’s not what you think / No, it’s not what you think,” he drops a full octave for that second “not,” giving you the same physical sensation you get when an airplane suddenly loses a hundred feet in altitude.
The only criticism that might be leveled against the album is its brevity. Its six tracks (with an additional fragment by the Quartet— a palate cleanser, really) run a mere thirty-one minutes. But this isn’t a criticism I am prepared to make. I may be old school, but I believe a record album should be a coherent artistic statement, with a thematic arc that leads the listener over a range of experiences to arrive at a resultant catharsis. The idea that more songs should be added to a set just because there’s room for them is ultimately reductive—downgrading art to product. “Last Flight Out” is exactly as long as it needs to be. Rather than gorge on more, I’m happy to savor each transcendent moment. As I certainly will, over the coming weeks. Feel free to join me.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.