[13 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Dawn Golden is a project by producer/songwriter Dexter Tortoriello, who is better known for being part of the dream-pop duo Houses. His debut album as Dawn Golden, the name of which was originally Dawn Golden and Rosy Cross, took more than three years to make, with Tortoriello crafting it in between his other regular gig. It was recorded in Diplo’s Mad Decent studios, as well. So what can be said about Still Life? Well, it’s generally pretty quiet and laid back, giving it something of an after-house chill vibe. There isn’t much shine from the fact that Diplo might have been a muse of some sort. And Tortoriello, most of the time, sings as though he’s just gotten out of bed and hasn’t had time to shave or shower yet.
So this is sleepy-time bedroom pop, but it’s actually not a bad example of the genre. At least, in the first half. After you get into Side Two territory, you begin to realize that Dawn Golden’s tricks are pretty much used up, and the material starts to get a bit repetitive. There’s also an instrumental number titled “Chevotain” that spends about four minutes and 10 seconds going absolutely nowhere, unless you count the static-filled universe of a TV set on the blink as actually going places. Still, Still Life isn’t bad when it hits, but this might have worked better as another EP. (There was one in 2011.) And I find it incredible that this took more than three years to produce, but I guess this is a product that was less laboured over and more pushed to the backburner to be worked on when there was time.
As stated before, this is a particularly front-loaded release. Opening track “Discoloration” begins with a few sustained organ chords, before the vocals and a minimal beat drops in. However, “Discoloration” is a song that gradually builds to an emotional climax as the instrumentation gets sharper and sharper, even if the overall pace of the song travels along like a snail. And, eventually, there’s a quite liberal but yet appealing use of a vocoder. Overall, it’s a nice little ballad. But then first single “All I Want” starts, and it might be a candidate for the most Coldplay-sounding track not performed by Coldplay. Tortoriello sounds remarkably Chris Martin-like and there’s the use of a plaintive piano. This is a song that’s worth attention. It’s a standout pop ditty, and, if there was any justice in the world, this would quite easily go Top 10.
“Sleight Orchestra” continues with the meandering pace of the record, although it sounds, in some ways, like the opening riff from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, which was already sampled by M.I.A. It’s not a bad song, but it’s similarity to “Straight to Hell” is a little jarring. “I Won’t Bend” begins with a starburst of keyboard notes, and is yet another ballad on an album of ballads. But it’s hardly forgettable, and has a rather slithery R&B feel to it. And then “Swing” kicks in with its galloping beats, and this is the one moment on the record that feels upbeat, making it among its most memorable simply for standing out.
However, there’s that niggling issue about the back half. “The Beekeeper” has a nice vocal melody, but it kinda sounds a lot like what preceded it. And here’s about where you might get bored with the record and slowly nod off. The title track is another Coldplay-esque piano ballad, and it doesn’t surpass the earlier moment on the LP where Tortoriello was aping his influences. I’ve already talked about “Chevotain”, which grinds the album to a halt, and then there’s “Last Train”. Another piano ballad you say? Yes, another piano ballad. At roughly this point you wonder what’s up with Dawn Golden’s sound. At least Tortoriello is consistent, I suppose. Happily, final song “Brief Encounter”, while being sluggish slow jam, at least is somewhat memorable with a hook that stays in your head, causing you to linger over this album.
So, Still Life is a little hit and miss, but it’s quite enjoyable on its own terms, so long as you don’t mind the odd copycat moment or the fact that this moves at the speed of a car stuck in neutral. There are moments of quiet beauty and contemplation, even if this is a stark album that isn’t afraid to throw the odd f-bomb at the listener. If anything, Still Life is a recording of promise, of things to come, and it’ll be interesting to see how Tortoriello balances this act with his work in Houses. As it stands right now, this record is one best suited for those precious few moments before heading off to dreamland. It’ll help you relax, at least.
Repeated listening kind of made the album grate on me. This is something that makes an impact the first time you hear it and then it kind of gradually wears out its welcome just a little bit, and I think that’s because the second half of the record isn’t as compelling as the first. However, what we’re left here isn’t quite so bad, and here’s hoping that perhaps Tortoriello varies the content a bit more on a forthcoming release with some more pepper, because, if anything, Still Life is a little too still and could use an injection of energy to really spice things up and make the consistency of this output even more memorable than it already is.