Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dean Station - "Raising the Root" (Self-Release 2007)

Dean Station's latest release makes me wish I had an eclectic staff of writers covering most musical genres. Neo-folk is just not something I know very much about. While fairly knowledgeable about the pre-World War II folk music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the Folk Revival that brought a pre-rock 'n' roll Bob Dylan to fame, I have never paid a tremendous amount of attention to contemporary folk practitioners I didn't know personally. I do have some limited experience, which I feel like I should explain as this will be the basis of my review.

Austin in the late 80's was home to two seemingly disparate subcultures - the punk/post punk crowd and latter day hippies. I was very much in the camp of the former. Austin had an almost sentient talent, at least at that time, for blurring distinctions and bringing together groups of young people with very different world views. Maybe it still does. I've gotten too old to keep up.

Part of this unlikely comraderie was forced upon us all by the common enemy of roving gangs of drunk frat boys looking to beat up "faggots". If there are any drunk frat boys reading this know that I'm not tying to bait you. This is just how it was. Maybe it still is. Again, the age thing. Largely, though, these two groups met at the crossroads of The Butthole Surfers. It's hard to imagine for people too young to remember what it was like hearing a new Surfers record at that time. Neo-psychedelia informed by a punk rock sensibility and a relentlessly avant-garde presentation insured that you absolutely never knew what to expect. Their live shows, however, were a different matter. You were guaranteed a 2 - 3 hour long trip festival, and neither the punks nor the hippies were averse to the use of LSD. This meeting ground led to friendships that led to punks hanging out at hippie parties and vice versa with little or no hostility. It was in this context that I was first exposed to the style of music Dean Station plays.

It was inevitable at hippie parties that you would have 3 - 5 people with guitars, occasionally mandolins or banjos, and bongos harmonizing along to original or covered tunes. I would be lying if I said it didn't drive the punks, myself included, to the other side of the yard. The fact that Dean Station was formed in Albuquerque, NM and currently hails from Boulder, CO certainly suggests this kind of musical expression is still going strong and in no way unique to the Austin of 20 years ago. Apologies for the lugubrious introduction. All that being said I will now attempt to be fair to Dean Station.

Raising the Root is an appropriate title for this record. While drawing from folk and bluegrass traditions, husband and wife team Amanda and Levi Dean attempt to raise the bar on both by bringing non-standard arrangements and structures to most of the songs here. The result is something, when one brings the lyrics to bear, earthier than either. From the misunderstood protagonist of album opener "Feather" to the non-religious inspirational message of "Pocket Full of Grace" there is a very hippie sensibility saturating the lyrics on the record. Even the outrage expressed in "Mid January", the record's strongest track, has a mellow core, and this is a very mellow album. Assuming authorship by the Dean handling the lead vocal, Levi Dean's lyrics are typically more introspective, as on the sad lament "Desire", than Amanda's more outspoken and positivistic themes. There are, of course, exceptions.

While I may seem overly focused on the Dean's lyrics, it's the lyics that are on showcase throughout the record. The (beautifully harmonized) vocals are very much out in front of the rest of the mix. Since Amanda Dean admits to considering herself more of a poet than musician and the production credit goes to Doug Deforest and Dean Station (DeForest also handles some bass duties on the record) this would seem to be by design. It's not necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that it very much overshadows the more than competent performances delivered on a range of eclectic instruments. This record would have had more resonance with me had the Dean's musical ability been given more attention.

In the end, while I admire the Dean's stretching of the boundaries of what constitutes folk music, they seem more comfortable on songs like the more traditional country stomp of "Flat Footin' Girl" or in the waltz time signature of "Stay".

I saw Dean Station when they passed through Austin on their last tour (Seven months?!? I barely lasted 21 days when I was their age (24 and 26). You've gotta admire them for that.) and was very impressed. If my description of their music sounded less than appealing to any readers out there, I encourage you to see them live. For Raising the Root I'm going to have to go half and half and remind you to consider that I'm entirely ignorant of any innovations that Neo-folk has enjoyed over the last 20 years. I sincerely hope that adherents of the genre got a resonably good impression of how this record sounds - while it's not my cup of tea I'd be ingenuous in saying that it won't serve many palettes well.

2 out of 4 on this one.

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