[18 February 2014]
The allusion is too obvious, so no doubt this will seem trite, but Dawn Landes really does sound like a bluebird. Most amateur ornithologists know the males of the species sing the most and have the showier plumage, but the females do chortle also and have their own kind of subtle beauty. Males may flash, but it’s the women that offer the more delicate and perfect charms.
This is nature, not sexism, and saying Landes is birdlike is not condescending. Her voice may be soft but it is strong. Female bluebirds don’t croon to attract mates but to warn of intruders in their territory. It would be a stretch to say that’s exactly what Landes does on her latest release, but not much of one. The Brooklyn via Louisville singer songwriter offers an enchanting paean to “Home” as well as tunes that address the delights and dangers outside. Landes understands that when she walks down to the edge of the woods, she should not enter further, but that doesn’t stop her (metaphorically speaking). Tangles in the weeds mean nothing when your eyes are staring upwards.
“The bluebird carries the sky on its back,” Henry David Thoreau noted by in his journals back in 1852. By looking aloft, Landes runs the risk of falling or worse. She whispers in the chorus the stunningly exquisite chorus of a different song, “Don’t you want to see me / mistreat me / and try and make a fire burn again.” She’s willing to put up with pain if she can achieve something higher. Maybe it’s just love, that word that means everything and nothing in the contemporary world. But Landes knows love means more than just words. On another song, appropriately called “Love Song”, she explicitly declares, “I want to write you a love song / with my life.”
What keeps Landes from being schmaltzy is the simplicity of acoustic instrumentation and the tensile strength of her gentle vocalizations. She has the aural equivalent of those spider webs they turn into cables to lift heavy objects without breaking. While there is something ethereal about her music, it also has substance and physicality. Consider the waltz rhythms of “Heel Toe” that convey the back and forth motions of sexual/sensual touching and moving together and as a separate partner. Like the wind that blows alluded to in the song, it can be pleasant relief or a destructive storm.
The new album’s centerpiece, “Cry No More”, located smack dab in the middle at track five of ten, will garner the most attention merely because of her recent divorce from Josh Ritter, another fine singer-songwriter who works in a similar idiom. The song basically says she’s over the hurt while her voice suggests she’s still in distress. However, finding autobiographical truths in creative works is a silly task. No doubt the feelings expressed are genuine, but a song can only express one small part of a large set of emotions, behaviors, and attitudes. Certainly every tune on this album and every other one she’s written contain references to inner conflicts in a conscious or subconscious manner. Being closer to the bone or the truth doesn’t make it a better song. The ten pieces here provide candid glimpses into Landes that can be interpreted in many ways, just like one can hear the chortle of a bluebird in the woods can make one look around to see what is happening. It does not mean you and the avian creature perceive the same world, but are simply part of the landscape at the same time.