Steve Dawson is a singer-songwriter, and his music embodies all of the connotations and implications of such a label as perfectly as any singer-songwriter I’ve heard in a long time. His instrument of choice is the acoustic guitar, he sings sensitive songs about sensitive things, he incorporates other instruments (strings, drums, horns) when it suits the thrust of the song, and you could find someone who sounds a little like him on any given night at one of your local bars.
The best of the singer-songwriters of the type described above know a bit about how to catch a listener with an unexpected melody, a turn of phrase, or a chorus that sticks in the brain like so much peanut butter, and Steve Dawson immediately caught me with the title track of his solo debut Sweet is the Anchor. The song “Sweet is the Anchor” is the second song on the disc, and it’s a doozy. “I could not pull any harder than this / I try to run but the weight it resists,” sings Dawson as the song finds him looking for comfort in desperation, peace in the search for something more. While a song like this could get mired in a morass of melodramatic muck, “Sweet is the Anchor” actually keeps a brisk pace, riding on Dawson’s light-as-a-feather falsetto and an ascending chord progression. It’s a lovely song, and one that gave me high hopes for the rest of the album.
Unfortunately, high hopes are too often destined to crash.
The rest of Dawson’s work on Sweet is the Anchor actually does fall into the trap of generic singer-songwriter noodling, and there’s actually little, save that title track, to set it apart from everything else out there. Things like album opener “Temporary” try to get by on guitars, strings, and brushed drums, but only come off sounding like they’re sung by a second-rate David Gray. The sound often veers toward country, as mid-tempo shufflers like “I’m the One I Despise” and “The Guilty Will Pay”, two of the less cheerful songs on the album, can attest to. This would be fine, except that many of the slower tunes that reflect the country sound (“Like a Wheel”, “Ten Thousand Pounds”) just seem to go on forever, ambling along with no real purpose, climax, or excitement.
There are occasional spots where Dawson attempts a change, most notably on the ‘70s soul throwback “Love is a Blessing”. The song strives for Al Green, but barely gets to Maroon 5, strutting along just as repetitively as the above country tunes. No amount of keyboards or thick strings are going to hide the deficiencies of a song that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s surface-soul, soul without soul, and it’s a bit painful to listen to. Dawson stretches his vocal range on “Out of Your Mind”, but after a promising falsetto display to open the song, it too turns into another lifeless country strut. Experiments in percussion even make themselves known on occasion, but the pseudo-industrial grind that closes “Like a Wheel” and the light Casio beat that shows up at the end of “The Monkey Mind is On the Prowl” are both incongruous with the songs they belong to and too short to make any sort of impact. It’s as if Dawson had plenty ambitious thoughts and ideas, but was afraid to carry them out to fruition.
Obviously, I’m nonplussed by Sweet is the Anchor, but realistically, it’s pretty inoffensive and unassuming, and will serve as a nice space-filler for those looking for a quiet album to pass the time. The problem is, when it contains an acoustic tune as perfect as the title track, the rest of the album can’t help but wither under the pressure of trying to maintain that level of quality. Dawson’s been at this for a long time, fronting and releasing a number of albums with Dolly Varden, but somehow this still sounds like the debut of an inexperienced artist. It’s a little bit too tentative, a little bit too restrained to be truly enjoyed.