[13 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sad and sombre songs are one thing. Many people have them. What Chris Hooson and Dakota Suite have, which many people do not, is the ability to produce every single note with sorrow and deep, conflicting emotions. Over the course of the double album The Side of Her Inexhaustible Heart, the collective’s first-time collaboration with pianist Quentin Sirjacq, spanning 16 tracks in 77 minutes, there is hardly one bar of music that isn’t fully marinated in reflection, contemplation or solitude. This could be a good thing or it could be a non-issue. This is morose music that fully fulfills its purpose, and I’m hard-pressed to put a negative spin on that.
Fans of Hooson and his outfit know the drill by this point. Last year’s collaboration with Emanuele Errante, The North Green Down, served as a therapeutic outlet for Hooson’s grieving over the loss of his sister-in-law. This time, there is no death looming over The Side of Her Inexhaustible Heart, but there are feelings of loss, regret and loneliness – as if a feeling or a way of life has died. The track names are all telltale signs: “Yes We Will Suffer,” “You Will Take All That I Love,” and “Becoming Less and Less.” Dynamics are hushed throughout, staying at the softest level possible while still being heard. Hooson’s voice goes through a series of soft cracks and croaks as if he’s in danger of waking somebody in the studio, and all other instruments follow suit: piano, vibraphone, light percussion, organ, cello, bass, violin, and viola. It certainly sounds like less than six people.
When Chris Hooson and Quentin Sirjacq met, they discovered a personal connection in addition to a musical one. Judging from the results, they must have been on the same page since day one. All but two songs were co-written by the two friends and no one compositional voice overshadows the other. With the exception of Hooson providing vocals on a handful of numbers, it’s really a draw as far as who came up with what. Sirjacq’s piano style is, unsurprisingly, a natural fit to the overall Dakota Suite sound already established. And when things are perfectly blended, there is no push and pull – which means, no conflict. And where there is a lack of conflict, your enjoyment of the music hinges on why you listen to music in the first place.
You see, The Side of Her Inexhaustible Heart is an album where rewards and frustrations can be cut from the same cloth. If you are looking for finer details to present themselves to you, that’s a waiting game better played elsewhere. If you can tolerate a singular honey-drenched mood with a dynamic range to match, then the smaller things tucked inside the music’s harmonies will eventually bloom. But Dakota Suite’s almost stubborn approach to all that is sad and lonely makes the arrival more hard-fought than that of your favourite sleeper/grower albums. These kinds of observations shouldn’t be taken as slights against Dakota Suite’s ambitions, but rather a word of caution to the average listener who has trouble trudging through double albums. But I will leave it at this: it takes dedication to conjure this much music out of one mood and a limited number of instruments.