Monday, November 2, 2009

The ups and downs of the rodeo with Dawn Landes

I really know next to nothing about rodeos, other than that they’re pretty wild and pretty American and that they have something to do with untamed animals jumping about with people on their backs. So I didn’t really know what to expect when I bought Dawn Landes’ new album Sweet Heart Rodeo, other than that, if it was anything life her earlier album, Fireproof, it was likely to be pretty good.

The rodeo theme keeps emerging and re-emerging throughout this album – an album that always feels a little wild, a little unsettled, a little restless. There seems to be an all pervading sense of transience, of someone uprooted – sometimes finding quick thrills here and fast excitement there, but never really feeling settled anywhere.

It’s an idea that is reflected in the music, too, which hops from genre to genre, always with a thread of rock weaving its way through folk and country, through music that swings and music that sways and music that plays. Each song seems to have its own upbeat face, covering an itinerant, wandering soul. There's some wonderful colours in the instruments - guitars, bells, wurlitzers, drums, congas, pianos, organs, bass, double bass, french horn, mandolin, cello, flute and, of course, Dawn Landes' beautiful clear voice binding it all together.

In ‘Young Girl’, the rodeo is a metaphor for time – giving its bitter message to the young about the things that will pass, and the hurts that will be dealt, all to a driving rock where the beat is everything, giving even Dawn's sweet, melodious voice a feeling of aggression to it.

The whirlwind world of the opening track is balanced in the second, ‘Money in the Bank’, a simpler, more gentle folk rock, with strumming guitar and an unpretentious celebration of the simpler things – the sun, the moon, sleeping outside and having a rose inside.

The music is always wandering and roaming between the search for stability and the experience of instability, like the wild country rock of 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo', ablaze with a rebellious spirit; or the childlike playfulness of ‘Clown’, where you can’t help but accept its invitation to “Clap your hands in the air/Play the fool, you don’t care/People gonna laugh and stare”; or the classic country road song that is ‘Wandering Eye’; or the deceptive innocence of 'Little Miss Holiday', a song about prostitution being brought to the screens of Hollywood.

Despite all the cheerful buoyancy of these songs, we always know that something less happy is not far below the surface – and, in ‘Brighton’ it finally comes to the fore in a wistful, slow song, with sad cello, that longs for home with the words “just want a place to be”.

The album’s short 32 minutes come to an end with ‘All Dressed in White’, a song without words, to joyous, jumping electronics – almost like a full-stop, maybe even a point of rest, after so much restlessness.

Sweet Heart Rodeo is certainly an album of ups and downs – it bucks you and chucks you but, no matter how rough the ride gets at times, you want desperately to stay on to the end. And that’s when you discover that this wild, untamed beast really, just like you, only wants a bit of peace.

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