Music

On 'Last Flight Out' Steve Dawson and Funeral Bonsai Wedding Create Sublime, Eerie Beauty

Photo: Matthew Gilson / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

Orchestral-indie torch-song chamber-folk? Time to break out your music genre thesaurus for this gorgeous, impeccably crafted gem from Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding.

Last Flight Out
Steve Dawson and Funeral Bonsai Wedding

KSE

8 May 2020

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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Music

Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.

Music

Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.

Reviews

Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.

Reviews

'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.

Reviews

Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Music

Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.