Friday, September 26, 2008

Donovan Quinn & The 13th Month - Self-Titled (Soft Abuse 2008)

Soft Abuse 2008

Listen: Patterns on Your Summer Dress

Donovan Quinn likes to sing about love, but not the happy clappy falling in love where it's all sunshine and rainbows, but the sticky, messy, bitter and dejected sort of feelings you get after love. `And I hate the sounds of your voice ... You haunt this town / Every street ... What kind of love is this?' Quinn sings on the country-esque opener `October's Bride', but isn't that what country music is all about? Except Quinn soon loses the steel guitar and returns to his more typical Americana, blues style playing, so this isn't really a country music album at all. The deceptive opener is typical of Quinn and his lyrics are certainly a reflection of this, as he narrates all kinds of tales centred around that mysterious thing we call love.

Compared to October Lanterns this is far easier listening. The melodies are neat and structured, mostly following standard conventions (note the chord change on `Patterns on Your Summer Dress'), the instruments are nothing special, guitar strumming, a fiddle, piano etc. and Quinn's delivery has the strange familiarity of traditional psych-folk inspired songwriters, and can be at times a little bit graining. So what makes this different from any number of solid indie folk acts out there at the moment? It's the album's apparent effortlessness, the conviction of Quinn's delivery and frank confessions that he spurns out over the fourteen songs that make the album enjoyable without ever being insincere or affected. It's basically as far from the overblown drawling yelps of someone like Conor Oberst as it could be, though I guess comparisons are likely.

They're going to Pick Us Apart - `Hazy Sun / That's all I've done since you've gone / Since you've gone like ... I sink / For winter has come to the coast / I hide my head and live like a ghost / You must marry me one day / Before New Year's day - the lyrics are bleak, the tune is surprisingly upbeat, but it's very much in danger of drifting into clichéd songwriting territory.

Apparently Quinn grew up on a horse ranch in California, which is a good indication as to why there's an eerie, lonesome longing to most of the songs on the record. There's definitely an autumnal feel, but the sun's not quite gone down and the songs reflect that calm, contemplative moment just before sunset. There's a definite wistfulness to the whole record, and Quinn asks about as many questions as he answers, pondering the perennial ideas of love and death. It's definitely more pop-orientated that anything he's ever done with the Skygreen Leopards.

There's also bitterness at the heart of this record, but the quiet reflective pieces are so much more than simple foray's into familiar break-up territory. Not everything is lost - and you get the impression that the sarcastic touches are far from resentful, but affecting insights into the fragility of all relationships.

On `Moose Indian', Quinn sings about how his brother dies and then wanders what that look in his eyes was all about. He then goes on to sing about his brother's girlfriend leaving him with `lipstick lips' and `hair all full of rain' and then how his own girlfriend died just last night and he didn't say goodbye, but doesn't like to see her change even into a butterfly. The imagery is bizarre, but touching and I'm not sure the gentle guitar strumming really does much to enhance the melancholy beauty of the song. It reminded me a little of an Elvis Perkins song of some years ago, where he sings about how his mother actually did die in the night. And despite Perkins' more pop-rooted inclinations, the song worked better, because of it had a much stronger melody.

Listening to this album for a while reminded me of Jana Hunter. Both musicians have a low-key, melancholic approach to songwriting, with touches of the familiar combined with odd whimsicalities and pychedelic twinges, in sort of happy-go-lucky arrangements. They're able to drift from the good old-fashioned traditional folk of independent American songwriters like Dylan or even Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead to the charming pop idiosyncrasies of songwriters like Robyn Hitchcock and Skip Spence and still manage to do something original in between. `Dark Motel' even has a bit of Neil Young about it, but the problem is the whole thing comes across as a little bit disjointed. There are some definite highlights on the album, like `Patterns on a Summer Dress' and `Sister Alchemy', but they come too early on in the album, and the rest of the songs are pretty, but not as memorable.

I'm not sure this is going to be a major breakthrough record for Quinn, it's certainly more mainstream than what he's done in the past, but if anything it may end up polarising older fans. The fact that he's traded in his more haunting, Jandek-inspired, bluegrass rooted playing on October Lanterns is probably going to be missed by some people, especially given the fact that this album does have a few too many similarities with The Skygreen Leopard's 2006 album, Disciples of California, just a little bit less country. We'll have to wait to see how The Skygreen Leopard's forthcoming Hickory Rainbow fits in amongst all of this, but I'm starting to get the impression that like James Toth of Wooden Wand, Donovan Quinn is content to leave all the psychedelic weirdness behind him and move on. But in the end this is a pretty solid record, but like Jana Hunter, I'm sure it's going to be destined to pleasant obscurity. Patience is rewarded, but a little greater diversity would have been just as welcome.


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