Steve Dawson
Photo: Matthew Gilson / Courtesy of the artist

Steve Dawson Brings a Direct Feel to ‘Ghosts’

Now armed with a full band, Steve Dawson’s songs have more musical heft on Ghosts, resulting in one of his best and more streamlined solo works.

Steve Dawson
Pravda Records
7 June 2024

Somewhere between Jackson Browne, John Hiatt, and Neil Finn lies the songwriting territory of Chicago’s Steve Dawson. An impassioned singer/songwriter who imbues his songs and recordings with folk, country, and a smattering of soul, Dawson also co-founded the alt-country band Dolly Varden and the twang-punk outfit Stump the Host. His solo works tend to be more heartfelt and direct, and his latest release, Ghosts, is solid proof of that.

Written chiefly between 2017 and 2023, Ghosts is the follow-up to At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree, his 2021 solo release recorded almost entirely by himself during the COVID pandemic. Now armed with a full band – including his music and life partner, Diane Christiansen, on vocals – the songs have more musical heft, resulting in one of Dawson’s best and more streamlined solo works.

Opening with the country-tinged, mid-tempo “Time to Let Some Light In”, Dawson sings “The past is gone” in the chorus, although he often digs into that past all over the record’s ten songs. In the soulful ballad “It Was a Mistake”, Dawson analyzes a breakup, trying to figure out what went wrong, while a horn section reminiscent of vintage Stax/Volt singles adds muscle to the arrangement. Loss is also eloquently expressed in the achingly beautiful “Sooner Than Expected”, not just in the lyrics but also the sparse, stately arrangement, as Dawson’s acoustic guitar is accompanied by Christiansen’s harmony vocals and Alton Smith’s accordion.

Steve Dawson gets gritty at times, as well. He pulls no punches on the visceral “Leadville”, the tale of a small town brimming with toxic masculinity – inspired by his teenage years in Idaho – that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Steve Earle setlist. “I got my first job when I was 14,” Dawson sings, “Washing dishes in a kitchen full of raging men / Their endless bragging about pussy and cocaine / Made me promise myself I wouldn’t turn out like them.”

In terms of arrangements, Ghosts is filled with a variety of intelligent choices. The directness of “Leadville” is complemented nicely by the subtleties of “A Mile South of Town”, which incorporates low-key percussion and twin rhythm and lead acoustic guitars, building up the simmering atmosphere of tension to Dawson’s first-person tale of a man facing imminent death. It’s highly reminiscent of the albums Dawson made as part of the impressionistic jazz/folk band Funeral Bonsai Wedding (Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Last Flight Out), which saw him bringing an almost ethereal, Astral Weeks-inspired sensibility to his songwriting.  

But for the most part, Ghosts – by design – is very much a direct, full-band, live-in-the-studio effort. “Many of my favorite albums were recorded live in the studio,” Dawson explains on his Bandcamp page. “The arrangements on this new album were created on the spot, and rather than a collection of overdubs, the album is a performance.” Steve Dawson is an evocative, brilliant songwriter and an accomplished musician and arranger. Considering the popularity of many of the songwriters Ghosts tends to evoke, he should, by all rights, be a household name.

RATING 8 / 10