David Dondero is a thief. Eavesdropping in dive bars, he steals bits of conversations and drunken truths. The miserable pasts and shaky desires of bar patrons become fodder for his penetrating lyrical tales. With these stories, Dondero heists the hearts of his listeners. Then, with twinkling melodies, he runs off with their emotions for good. He even rips off his musical characters, snatching their gym bags and leaving behind a single reverberating note. But Karma has caught up with his klepto ways. Dondero's quivering voice and trembling guitar style have been copied and praised by indie darling Connor Oberst. And along the way he's had his own heart bought and his family lost, and has made out with nothing but a brilliant new album called Shooting at the Sun with a Water Gun.
A contemporary piece of Americana, Shooting at the Sun illuminates the art of storytelling. Traveling along the folk continuum of Woody Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt, Dondero weaves lyrical narratives that are heart-breaking and uplifting, provocative and transporting. But instead of coffeeshop jams, the songs play like NPR in a smoke-filled punk bar.
The most personal track on the album, "Analysis of a 1970s Divorce", recounts the divorce of his parents with sly humor. He trudges through resentment towards his selfish father, empathy for his ex-cheerleader mother, pity for himself and his sister, and presents a feminist critique of marriage in the age before the sexual revolution. (Maybe they thought marriage was the proper thing to do / And in reality they probably just wanted to screw). Still, bitter remembrance shifts to a hopeful glance at the human spirit with lyrics like "Well sometimes I feel the product of a loveless interaction . . . But I believe in love / Protect your innocence". On the opposite end of the lyrical spectrum "The Real Tina Turner" is lifted straight from overheard conversations in a Pensacola bar. Dondero captures mundane and fascinating fragments of banter, and molds them into poetic epiphanies. The song rings with beer-soaked honesty and blurry understanding.
Equally engaging, "The Waiter" tells the hilarious story of a work-haggard waiter who gets jumped and fights back with a corkscrew for his hard-earned tips. But "The Waiter" takes storytelling one step further by creating a scenario through instrumentation. Rather than stick to twanging folk guitar, the strumming is like a thought pattern, rising and falling until it breaks down with a rumble. As Dondero sings "So he pulled out his corkscrew as he was being taken to the ground / And a scuffle ensued", his banjo crumples to chaos with squeaks and groans, and a couple of accompanying fiddles start wailing.
While the guitar is a little more standard on the other songs, it is never bland. Like Dondero's voice, it is equally vulnerable and strong -- a civilized strumming that breaks into Frusciante-like squeals and throbbing jams at will. Shooting at the Sun with a Water Gun is relatively sparse, but with such light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel guitar work and unrefined vocals, the album requires nothing more. David Dondero unveils a fragile beauty that makes listeners want to take him home and care for him. Heal his wounds and be his muse.
At least we can buy his album. Buy it for the first song, the first note, the self-conscious cough that begins the CD. From the onset, Dondero caresses listeners' emotions with the same intimacy that he strums his guitar "If You Break My Heart" pricks at the soul with a glorious, uplifting melody and then slides into lyrics that are funny and sensual and sad and inspiring. ("If you break my heart, you pay for it / You break my heart, you bought it".) It's a universal sentiment, stated in perfectly unique David Dondero terms. This song, like the album as a whole, belongs everywhere and nowhere, kind of like Dondero himself. A perpetual nomad, he has been touring since 1993 and supporting himself on odd jobs. Throughout his six album career, he has never laid down real roots. Except in the hearts of fans. Enduring and pure, Shooting at the Sun with a Water Gun digs deep into those soft spots of the soul, making it one of the best releases of the year.