If you have any experience hearing Steve Dawson performing with Chicago-based indie roots-rock band Dolly Varden (or before that, the twang-punk outfit Stump the Host), it’s hard to imagine a follow-up project sounding anything like Funeral Bonsai Wedding. His former bands were certainly respectable and well-loved, but Dawson’s current project contains plenty of moments that scale heights unimaginable with any previous bands. Last Flight Out is the long-awaited follow-up to the self-titled 2014 Funeral Bonsai Wedding debut album. While it contains the same sophisticated jazz/pop touchstones of its predecessor – vibraphone, upright bass, plenty of quizzical lyrics – added elements push the album into the stratosphere, creating an almost otherworldly sophistication. This isn’t so much an album as it is musical world-building. It contains that level of heft and depth.
In addition to Dawson’s guitar and vocals, Last Flight Out also includes vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Charles Rumback – whose collaboration with Ryley Walker on the album Little Common Twist resulted in one of last year’s most well-received instrumental releases – and bassist Jason Roebke. Upping the ante is the inclusion of the Chicago-area string ensemble Quartet Parapluie. Their presence is vital to what makes this album work. The songs are expertly crafted, the core band sounds impeccable, but the strings add an element that separates Last Flight Out from other similarly ambitious albums.
Dawson’s voice a wonder to behold, a full-throated cross between Neil Finn and Josh Tillman, and the songs run the gamut from eerie slices of baroque rock reminiscent of cult singer/songwriter Eric Matthews to the chamber pop of mid-period XTC. Rich, full string arrangements mesh with an acoustic guitar on the opening title track, and Adasiewicz completes the picture with a loose, jazzy vibes solo. The arrangements become a bit more experimental with “Mastodons”, as the strings groan and creak as if they’re trapped under the weight of Dawson’s beautiful angst.
Despite the occasionally misanthropic and mildly atonal moments, Last Flight Out also embraces classic pop song structure on many occasions, such as “However Long It Takes”. The song embraces a breezy tempo, and the strings glide along with Dawson’s soulful exhortations (aided by the gorgeous harmonies of Diane Christiansen, Jenny Bienemann, and Alton Smith in the chorus). Comparing these miniature pop/soul/folk pieces to the pastoral glory of ambitious Van Morrison albums like Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece seems almost too easy, but that speaks to the ambition and sophistication at work here. Dawson appears to take cues from Morrison’s multi-verse epic tracks on “The Monkey Mind Is on the Prowl”, a song that clocks in at nearly eight minutes, but the loose approach and the playful strings make those minutes fly by.
Last Flight Out explores even more musical avenues with “While We Were Staring Into Our Palms”, a song that takes a slightly more simple approach. Dawson reaches back to the country roots of his previous bands, crafting something of a crooner’s ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, an early Lyle Lovett album (albeit one with Dawson’s ever-present strings).
“There is no poker face for me, despite my best attempts,” Dawson sings on the aching closing ballad, “It’s Not What You Think”. It’s something of a fitting description for the songs and performances on Last Flight Out. Dawson’s opaque lyrics and unconventionally beautiful arrangements can, in some ways, mask the intentions of an artist who prefers to escape from the real world. But the truth is that this achingly gorgeous album shows what can result from emotional and artistic honesty. It’s a rare and wonderful thing.