Newcastle Upon Tyne’s errant folkie Richard Dawson is prolific, releasing a deluge of material as a solo artist, in collaborations like Hen Ogledd, and under the alter-ego Eyeballs. His rough-hewn guitar and freewheeling vocals are distinctive, and Japan’s David Sylvian recently stated that Dawson “will be, if he’s not already, a national treasure.” Inspired by Mike Patton, he throws his voice around wildly. Dawson’s music is also reminiscent of American blues weirdo Captain Beefheart, and the charming and meandering songs of Robert Wyatt, or like an oddball Richard Thompson.
Dawson has been releasing music at a breakneck pace – I’ve already covered three of his records on my New Music Reviews section, so they needed to be organised on their own page, but I’m not well enough versed in his earlier records to cover them yet, so I’ve just listed them with their Bandcamp summaries for now. I’ve just listed albums credited to Dawson here – he’s released far more material as a member of Hen Ogledd and Bulbils, and also released earlier records as Eyeballs.
RICHARD DAWSON Album Reviews
Sings Songs and Plays Guitar | The Magic Bridge | The Glass Trunk | Nothing Important | Peasant | 2020 | Henki (with Circle) | The Ruby Cord
Richard Dawson Sings Songs and Plays Guitar
Dawson’s debut seems to be written out of his discography – it’s not available on Bandcamp or Spotify.
The Magic Bridge
The Magic Bridge marked a significant leap in Dawson’s development as a musician, a moment when he seemed to find his own voice, both vocally and through his guitar playing. He’d already been performing and recording around Newcastle for several years at this stage, but The Magic Bridge suggested Dawson had experienced some major personal epiphany that had brought a unique fire to his music.https://richardmichaeldawson.bandcamp.com/album/the-magic-bridge
The Glass Trunk
2012 saw another stylistic veer with the creation of The Glass Trunk. Triggered by a commission to respond to the local museum service’s archives, Dawson created an album largely from stories found in an old 17th Century scrapbook, including a lengthy paean to the sorry demise of community pillar Joe The Quilt-maker and the much-loved yet equally, viscerally dark Poor Old Horse. 6 acapella odes of between 4 and 13 minutes in length, plus a rendering of Mike Waterson’s The Brisk Lad, intersperse with a series of brief instrumental vignettes, Dawson’s guitar sparring with the electric harp of Rhodri Davies for strictly spontaneous 60-second blasts.https://richardmichaeldawson.bandcamp.com/album/the-glass-trunk
Stumbling from music-hall tune-smithery to spidery swathes of noise-colour, Richard Dawson hints at a time before today’s over-preened and manufactured music world.https://richardmichaeldawson.bandcamp.com/album/nothing-important
No listener to Dawson’s earlier music has ever discerned a lack of artistic ambition. Whether they got on at the last stop – the 4 track Tyneside-Trout-Mask-through a-Vic and Bob-filter of Nothing Important – or earlier in the journey, with The Glass Trunk’s visceral song cycle or The Magic Bridge’s sombre revels, devotees of his earlier recordings will be at once intrigued by and slightly fearful of the prospect of a record that could make those three landmark releases look like formative work. Peasant is that album. From its first beguilingly muted fanfare to its spectacular climax exploring a Dark Ages masseuse’s dangerous fascination with a mysterious artefact called the Pin of Quib, Peasant will grab newcomers to Richard Dawson’s work by the scruff of the neck and refuse to let them go until they have signed a pledge of life-long allegiance.https://richardmichaeldawson.bandcamp.com/album/peasant
Dawson’s previous record, Peasant, focused on medieval life. 2020 is clearly focused on modern life in Britain. The album opens with the prosaic lines “Open your eyes, time to wake up/Shit, shower, brush your teeth, drain your cup” from ‘Civil Servant’. Dawson’s songs on 2020 are often focused on lengthy narratives; the UFO sighting of ‘Black Triangle’ is eight minutes long, while ‘Fulfillment Centre’ runs longer than ten minutes. Dawson plays almost all of the instruments on 2020, but the focus is on his propulsive and raw guitar playing.
‘Jogging’ is built around a pounding rock riff and sweetens his sound with synths, giving Dawson’s music more universal appeal than usual. ‘Black Triangle’ is also built around a dark and heavy riff, perhaps not surprising for someone who spent hours watching Iron Maiden videos as a teenager.
2020 is more accessible than Dawson’s previous work, with his partner educating him towards pop music. But it’s still very much outsider music; ‘Two Halves’ tells the story of a child playing football, harangued from the sidelines.
The focus on lengthy story-telling can limit the replay value of 2020, but it’s still an accomplished record, with its rough-hewn and anxious stories of modern life.
HENKI (RICHARD DAWSON & CIRCLE)
Newcastle Upon Tyne’s errant folkie Richard Dawson is prolific, releasing a deluge of material as a solo artist, in collaborations like Hen Ogledd, and under the alter-ego Eyeballs. His rough-hewn guitar and wide-ranging vocals are distinctive. On Henki, he’s linked up with the experimental Finnish band Circle and created a progressive rock concept album about plants. As a teenage Iron Maiden fan, playing with Circle is a natural fit for Dawson – it makes him more accessible as the fuller arrangements and harmonies sweeten his wild forays into falsetto. Henki is essentially a full-fledged foray into progressive rock, with long songs and botanical concepts – Genesis’ 1971 epic ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’ is an obvious frame of reference. But while a lot of modern progressive rock lacks personality and sounds sterile, Dawson’s blues leanings and rough vocals make him a compelling frontman.
The storytelling of Henki is the focal point, and it’s a fascinating collection of botanical tales. ‘Methuselah’ is about Donald Currey, who unwittingly cut down the world’s oldest tree. Opener ‘Cooksonia’ is in 3/4 with a sea-shanty feel, a biography of Australian botanist Isabel Cookson, the first known land-based vascular plant named after. The dynamics of ‘Ivy’ emphasise the part of the tale about the myth of King Midas, which makes it seem out of place – even though the chorus “Tendrils surging up/Ahhhh-ahhhhhh-ahhhh/Overflowing cup” is thoroughly botanical. The harder-rocking tracks showcase Circle’s skills – ‘Silphium’, about a now-extinct plant that was the backbone of the antiquarian Cyrene economy, and the closing ‘Pitcher’.
Rocking, full of personality, AND educational – Henki is a tough combo to beat.
THE RUBY CORD
After chronicling modern life on his previous solo album, 2020, The Ruby Cord is rooted in British folk, recalling Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span’s forays into electrification. But thematically, it’s set in a dystopian future, 500 years from the present.
Social mores have mutated, ethical and physical boundaries have evaporated; a place where you no longer need to engage with anyone but yourself and your own imagination. It’s a leap into a future that is well within reach, in some cases already here.https://richardmichaeldawson.bandcamp.com/album/the-ruby-cord
The tracklist is dominated by the 40-minute opening track ‘The Hermit’ – it’s the album’s first single, and a short film has been made to accompany the track. It’s worthy of its long running time, but the shorter tracks on the back half of the album are often outstanding. Dawson showcases his impressive falsetto on ‘The Fool’, while ‘The Tip of an Arrow’ rocks hard. Closing ‘Horse and Rider’ has a reassuringly traditional folk sound, with its lovely fiddle part.
Dawson’s always creative, and The Ruby Cord is an outstanding entry into an already impressive catalogue.
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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