[19 October 2011]
Singer/songwriter Gabe Dixon is taking another stab at pop stardom, only this time, he’s doing it solo. The Gabe Dixon Band, a quintet originally formed at the University of Miami music school in 1998, has stepped aside, and One Spark marks the solo debut of Gabe Dixon. By the time 2008’s magnificent The Gabe Dixon Band had been released, the band – originally including a sax player – had been reduced to a trio, including bass and drums. No big deal really, as “The” and “Band” were really just accoutrements to Dixon’s piano pop and songwriting. Since its inception, the “band” always centered around two main instruments: Dixon’s sensual voice and lovely piano. That’s still the case with One Spark.
The band had a taste of success with that eponymous 2008 release, which earned critical accolades (including some from this critic), and many songs were licensed for use on prime-time television dramas, with one in particular used as a movie theme song. Producer Marshall Altman, who’d “become a little more than obsessed with Gabe’s voice,” according to a press release, heard the album and was inspired to seek out Dixon as his next recording project. They set up writing sessions with the likes of former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson and Starsailor frontman James Walsh, among others, which yielded several of the songs on One Spark.
There’s really no mistaking that One Spark is aimed at commercial, mainstream radio play. That’s evident from the choice of lead single and album opener “Strike.” Swiftly strummed guitar meshes with light piano and a steady, rat-a-tat-tat backbeat; it’s always a smart move to put am up-tempo, catchy song as a lead track, and that’s the case here. But then the cringe-inducing chorus comes around, with Dixon reaching well, well, well above his vocal range, which sends one quickly reeling for the skip button. “Strike” is a case-in-point where someone, at least someone of Altman’s caliber, should have known better and left it on the cutting room floor. Luckily, for the most part, the rest of this album fares better.
“Even The Rain” is a lovely duet with Allison Krauss, which puts the focus back on Dixon’s fine piano and silky smooth vocals, which engage elegantly with Krauss’. It’s a beautiful ballad that depicts the moment when a couple comes to realize they’re falling for each other. “My Favorite” is more of a rocker, opening with a thunderous roar of drums, piano, and bass. A married man, Dixon clearly wrote this one for his wife, and it’s a much better choice for a single than “Strike.”
“On A Day Just Like Today” and “I Can See You Shine” are the best two songs here, and there’s one common element between them: the glorious banjo picking of Ilya Toshinsky. The former begins with Dixon’s exquisite, solo piano intro, his sensual, smooth baritone adding lament with lyrics of a sad soul who put his/her dreams aside; on the exuberant chorus, the narrator pleads for change on any given day. The chorus’ positivity resonates as banjo, steady percussion, and resolute piano join in providing an upbeat refrain. The latter isn’t as mellow as the former, but it is every bit as melancholic. That gorgeous banjo (really the highlight of the whole album) is even more prevalent right from the start, mirroring Dixon’s eloquent piano along with the reverberating rhythm of drums and bass. The lyrics once again paint a picture of another sad soul hiding away from the world, while the narrator, himself equally in as bad a place, can see a bright light shinning from inside out and finds solace and inspiration in the hope that together they can rise above the hurt.
Several other songs stand out nicely as well. “Burn For You” is a harrowing, anthem-like rocker that revisits Dixon’s feeling of drowning, so prevalent on the eponymous 2008 disc, here equated to a relationship going under while one party still has fired up emotions for the other. “Losing You” is an upbeat, fast-paced rocker that equates a relationship to a game of cards where one player just can’t get a good deal. Others, however, stink of crass commercialism; “Running On Fumes” is bound for an eco-box car commercial, and “Holiday,” with a synthesized horn section and Dixon once again stretching far above his range, a Caribbean cruise line theme song. Yuck.
However, the good outweighs the bad on this disc by far. Dixon’s an elegant and deft piano player, a fine songwriter who speaks from the soul, and, as long as he’s not overreaching, a smooth and sensual singer. And maybe this album has that one spark, the “Strike” or “Holiday” that ignites it and emblazes it on a mainstream, popular audience. It would be a shame, though, if the really good songs here don’t get heard.