There are at least three things we’ve been able to count on in the reliable career of Minneapolis-based multi-instrumentalist and Anticon mainstay Martin Dosh. The first is percussion; perhaps because it seems to be his first love and he teaches kids how to hit the skins by day, he treats almost all of his instruments as he would a drum, pounding percussive jams out of an indie-electronic setup. The second one is improvement. With each new record, Dosh has found better ways of articulating his musical ambitions. Whatever you think of his eponymous debut and its follow-up, Pure Trash — slight recordings for blurred electric piano and ramshackle hip-hop drumming — they were clearly dry runs for the music he was about to make. On The Lost Take (2006), he flirted with pop and trotted out a wonderful cast of now-regular collaborators; two years later on Wolves and Wishes, he doubled the personnel and threw half a dozen counterpoints into the pot, sending the songs awhirl.
It’s the sense of personal warmth in Dosh’s music, however, that carries the day — no small accomplishment for an artist who’s barely sung a note. He’s known to crossbreed his art with his life in sweetly unexpected ways: proposing marriage on a Pure Trash track, naming an EP after his young son, striking a close and unlikely friendship with Andrew Bird and collaborating on tours and records. But even as these stories have become part of his mythology, the music’s amiable quality is still very underrated. In another heartfelt move that’s likely to go relatively unnoticed, Dosh has titled his fifth full-length record Tommy, not after the rock opera but his sound engineer Tom Cesario, who passed away two years ago at the age of 35. The two attended the same high school and became good friends in the music scene, first in Brooklyn and then in the Twin Cities, before Dosh hired Cesario to work his tours in 2006. “Tom loved being on the road, fixing things,” Dosh wrote in a letter. “He loved to tell stories. He loved food, and knew the coolest restaurants in every city.” It’s apparent in the subtly touching writing that they enriched each other’s lives, the way it probably is with everyone to whom Dosh is close.
Tommy is not explicitly a funereal record, but there’s a melancholic air blowing through it that seems to constantly refer back to Cesario’s passing, even when the musicians are working up a sweat. Dosh puts his best foot forward on all of his records, and the leadoff track is the requisite stunner, a feast of funk drumming, keyboard, sax and scat singing that eats syncopation for breakfast. Something about it, though, feels moody, even mournful, like a whooping death ceremony. After all, it’s called “Subtractions”. But Dosh deals in poignancy, not sadness, and he often suggests absence rather than pulling the pieces out. The loping, full-bodied hip-hop of “Airlift” — to my eyes, another death reference — encapsulates Tommy in four near-perfect minutes, its reflective groove riding on a stretcher rotating higher and higher into the sky. All without a decrease in volume. Loud and intimate, centrifugally swirling and strangely suspended, Tommy expresses Dosh’s virtuosity and emotiveness in roughly equal proportion. It’s his most melodic work, and, perhaps to those who take mourning as the ‘selected fact’ around which the music constellates, the hardest one to swallow.
Additionally, Andrew Bird has more of a presence on Tommy than he’s had on every Dosh record combined. Not only does he sing on two songs and play violin on others, his influence is all over the album in a way it’s never been. Bird gives Dosh a dollop of indie rock classicism the way that Dosh has helped Bird to lighten up, and the two make wonderful music, bolstered by the sincerity of their friendship outside the studio. On “Number 41”, they turn Uncle Kracker’s country/hip-hop hybrid on its head, finding a way for the beat, lap steel, and honky-tonk piano to combine authentically. Bird assumes the role of country crooner spinning a metaphoric yarn in the vein of Freakwater: “If life’s a race, you surely won”. By comparison, their second effort is more of a bonus; “Nevermet” has Bird trying to find the progression in Dosh’s looped composition with some difficulty, but their good intentions hold the song together. It’s the instrumental “Country Road X” that channels Bird most of all, and for Dosh, it represents unprecedented levels of lump-in-the-throat emotionality. It’s Tommy’s starkest track by miles, and in the moments when the drums drop out to let the guitar and piano speak softly, it’s terribly apparent that something significant has gone.
In my experience of listening, the drums have been the most forgettable and least important aspect of this record, which doesn’t mean they aren’t impressive. They are, as always, but an inexplicable force prevents me from paying attention to them and blocks them out of memory. Drums create and symbolize form, presence. They move things along and materialize order. Tom Cesario died by falling out of his bed into a position in which he couldn’t breathe. There’s no order in that. It’s hard to say whether Tommy is the incremental improvement we anticipate from Dosh. Certain songs feel superfluous (“Loud”), and others are overcooked (“Call the Kettle”, previously on his Powder Horn CD-R). Even the sound quality isn’t as high as it’s been, which may or may not be a message to Cesario that he is missed. But Tommy isn’t the kind of record that prioritizes forward momentum. This is Dosh taking a step back, slowing down, freaking out a little (check the snarling ending of album finale “Gare de Lyon”), and making the most personal music of his career. Andrew Bird put it best: Life isn’t a race — you don’t win anything by finishing first. The axiom is both a beacon for Dosh and a bitterly ironic take on a life that finished far too soon.