David Dondero: The Transient

Gary Glauber

David Dondero

The Transient

Label: Future Farmer
US Release Date: 2003-10-21

Once upon a time in America, the tradition grew of the lonesome troubadour, traveling across this nation, guitar in hand, singing and writing songs about the land and the experiences and the people found along the way. Probably the most famous example of this tradition would be Oklahoman Woody Guthrie (whose unused lyrics were set to new music in recent years by Wilco and Billy Bragg); a more modern example would be the music and life of Texan Townes Van Zandt.

Following in their famous footsteps, traveling the nation with his own personal version of that folk music tradition, comes the somewhat obscure David Dondero, who has gone from Clemson, South Carolina to Pensacola, Florida to San Francisco currently, with many stops elsewhere, working odd jobs along the way.

Knowing that he speaks from vagabond experience lends credence to his music, including the eleven new songs on his latest release The Transient. Most of these songs laud the transient lifestyle, while others just observe it.

Dondero opens with "Living and the Dead", a country/bluegrass-folk number that tells of his trials and travails in choosing this road-worn troubadour's existence, a curious mix of highway archaeology and poetry: "I play the skinny indie white boy blues in scuffed up military style shoes, I'm a convenience store connoisseur on a broken shoe string budget tour".

This deceptively upbeat number is loaded up with lyrics that tell about the rollercoaster life of the transient performer. It's not easy, we gather, having to drive 14 hours to play to the sound guy as he's reading his book in an empty venue, nor would it be much fun to sleep every night in a truck. But Dondero takes it in stride, turning his situations into musical fodder, or as he puts it, "Just paraphrasing words … just to leave behind a song". His voice and able guitar picking sets you up not only to listen to his tales, but also to believe in them. There's an attractive intimacy at work here, and a sound that wavers between fragility and power as needed to tell each musical tale.

Dondero once was part of the alt-rock band Sunbrain, who released three albums prior to breaking up in 1996. After forming the short-lived Flatwheelers (and a brief stint as drummer for This Bike is a Pipe Bomb), Dondero decided to go it alone as a solo folk act.

While touring with Sunbrain, Dondero first met Mike Mogis (circa 1994), who was putting together his own studio at the time. Circumstances prevented their working together again till now, but Dondero finally found his way back to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Mogis and several other local musician pals aided in the making of The Transient.

In the interim, Mogis and his Bright Eyes contingents have had a fair amount of success with David Dondero's style (far more than he has had himself), and so there's a bit of irony to the fact that Conor Oberst and other Bright Eyes members show up here backing Dondero (like Tiffany Kowalski on violin and Casey Scott on bass). Wolf Colonel's Jason Anderson lends support on keys, while Gus's Craig D. plays drums.

Somber comes with handclaps here. Witness the light reflection on death that is "Ashes on the Highway". There's a certain nonchalance to Dondero's traveling ways; he's one who wants no fancy funeral, no fuss about his eventual passing: "When I die, burn my body and sprinkle my ashes on the highway / Let the traffic spread the ashes in the ditches and the overpasses". The idea is keep everything moving. Death doesn't stop anything.

Perhaps the most beautiful song here is the poignant "20 Years", a haunting tale of an ex-con out after doing two decades of prison time and finding that no one wants to hire him, that he's a different man from his experiences, but that the riverboat horn remains the same.

Dondero has fun here as well. In "See It Clear", a sort of freewheeling nonsensical treatise, he gives in to the temptation of the flesh, then stands for his mom's critique of his songwriting.

The quiet ballad of "Less Than the Air" is spare, preaching happiness to be found in traveling and observing nature's bountiful wonders rather than the traps of self-deprecation and easy misery. Dondero's voice wavers like the wind itself as the song builds from basic voice and acoustic guitar to something with percussion and piano and backed vocals and whistling, then finally collapses into a debate about what tangelos might be. It remains a simple performance, and therein lies its charm.

Simplicity also is the key to Dondero's ode to the healing powers of a North Carolina small town, "I'm Going Back to Wilmington", wherein he recounts the comforts of a woman there, the music, and the water.

Another pretty one is the beguiling love song "The Stars Are My Chandelier", in which Dondero flexes his poetic metaphor muscle in trying to describe a great love: "I could say my love is bigger than the big apple / Like oxyphenbutazone in Scrabble / Just like the stars are my chandelier / Just like these landscapes are my living room / Just like these highways are veins / I am the blood, I am the rain".

"Vaporize" is almost tribal in its rhythms, a reflection on the missing body of failed mountain climber Naomi Uemura, who made the summit of Denali but never made it back down.

Perhaps my favorite here is the title track, inexplicably buried deep inside this CD's offerings. It's yet another song celebrating the traveling life, this one questioning the very search involved in always going to the end of the road and back again, not knowing "what's for me" and only feeling good when in the act of going.

The closer is one that Woody Guthrie could appreciate: "Song for the Civil Engineer". In this odd song for the road, Dondero reminds us that behind every snaky stretch of tar, concrete, and gravel, there was a civil engineer and crew working hard to lay it down.

To my ears, the only track that really doesn't come across well is the repetitive "Dance of Spring", a monotonous reminiscence of a dead lover now replaced by alcohol and drugs. The other ten are an eloquent bunch of songs celebrating the ups and downs of the traveling wayfarer life with its constant motion, its uncertainty alongside death, love, loss, and more.

David Dondero calls the whole country home, and has seen enough along the way to serenade it in song. He loves the road and its sometime miseries, but like any existential hero worth his weight, he's determined to keep at it, survival being more than enough if fame isn't immediately forthcoming.

The Transient is eloquent and enjoyable, simple and upbeat, yet full of clever and often poetic musings. Dondero has released enough music to be called a veteran songsmith now, and he manages to balance viewpoints well as he takes on "the life of the road," walking that fine line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. And, as I said earlier, living it, he's earned the right to sing about and chronicle it.

Musically, things remain simple but varied enough to retain your interest. Dondero is a solid picker in live performance, and you sense that. The musicians that back him here lend warmth to the proceedings and their ensemble work never overpowers the folk-singer's lone voice and guitar that is (and should remain) the focus of the record. Mogis does a nice job of protecting the fragility that makes Dondero's work appealing. The end product remains unpolished, to a certain extent.

Fans of Americana (or even No Depression and alt-country) will find much to like in The Transient, as will those who like the simpler side of Ryan Adams or the Mermaid Avenue projects by Bragg and Wilco. That he manages to be both eccentric and cozily inviting is a testament to the quiet folk talents of David Dondero, who takes this long-revered tradition and carries that torch into the modern day with charm and aplomb.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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