Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Don Dixon 1985-2013

Don Dixon has given us many audio joys over the years, producing his wife Marti Jones' fine output as well as many others, including REM , Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene, Guadalcanal Diary, and Smithereens. He has produced over 100 recordings by many diverse artists. And he's made a series of records himself.

His debut was 1985's Most Of The Girls Like To Dance But Only Some Of The Boys Like To, a collection of demos and new tunes performed with members of Arrogance, Dixon's band from 1970 to 1983. It includes the college radio "hit" Praying Mantis, Dixon's ode to dangerous love, and one of his great ones. The title cut, Girls L.T.D., as well as Just Rites and Southside Girl show Dixon capturing the teenage zeitgeist with great rhythm, lyrics, and production. Skin Deep is a fine Nick Lowe cover, with a perfect Mitch Easter lead guitar and fine group vocals. Other highlights include an early version of Renaissance Eyes (done just a tad too fast) and Talk To Me, an ideal example of Dixon's syncopated, funky bass lines. Overall one of Dixon's finest.

Romeo At Julliard 1987 is a bit better produced, and Dixon spreads out a bit beyond the power-pop of the debut. It also is the first time that he includes the assistance of Marti Jones on vocals and guitar, percussionist extraordinaire Jim Brock, and one of my favorite guitarists of all time, Jaime Hoover, all of whom will contribute greatly to the quality of Dixon's work for years to come. Highlights include Borrowed Time (Dixon's vocal rasp to good effect), Your Sister Told Me (solid rocker), Heart In A Box (twisted lyric and great arrangement), February Ingenue (smoking Hoover guitar), Cat Out Of The Bag (bluesy rock swagger), and Cool (from Westside Story, done up with a five-piece horn section and another creative arrangement). There's a few weaker ones, but it is another very strong outing.

Then we come to what is Don Dixon's finest, most fully realized solo effort, EEE 1989. A combination of great Dixon songs, well-chosen covers, some big production numbers, and some great rockers, this really is the one. Oh Cheap Chatter is a great song about the hazards of being in love with a girl that thinks you're her best friend. John Hiatt's Love Gets Strange gets a fine reading with lots of percussion and great horns. Dixon's soulful rasp does unusually great work on At The Dark End Of The Street, a perfect fit between song and singer. I Can Hear The River is a gospel choir-assisted rocking ode to water, and Calling Out For Love is another classic from the pens of Dixon and Marshall Crenshaw. Sweet Surrender is a sweet, sad ballad that ends the record featuring Jim Brock's fabulous percussion. Song for song, his finest hour on record.

In 1992, (If) I'm A Ham, Then You're A Sausage was released, a fine best-of collection from the first three with a live version of Renaissance Eyes that betters the original and a one-off from a movie soundtrack. The best of Dixon's rocking era is right here. For the most casual fan, it is the cream of the crop. That said, there is much to like in Don Dixon's work after this, too. But for concentrated rocking fun, it is hard to beat. Close on the heals of Ham came The Chi-Town Budget Show 1993, a live document of Dixon's tour with Marti Jones and The Woods. The show starts with Don and Marti doing a couple of acoustic numbers. They are then joined by The Woods, and we get tight live readings of many of the early fan favorites, including, of course, Praying Mantis. It is mostly a fan's document, but it's fun, the band is hot, and the recording is good.

1995's Romantic Depressive is the beginning of a change in Dixon's music away from the power-pop rockers of the first three records to something of a more folk-rock mode. Dominated by mid-tempo and slower songs, there are great songs here, and the production values are high, but there's a clear shift away from Dixon's rockier side. Saved from slow tempos only by opener Righteous Side Of Love (a big loud rocker), the record features Giving Up The Ghost (a great sad lyric and fine melody), Good Golly Svengali (a slinky instrumental), and 25,000 Days (harmonies, guitar, lyric). Again, there's some fine stuff here, but I can't help but want for more energy. The Invisible Man 2000 takes the lack of energy in Romantic Depressive and multiplies it. It also has a less produced, low-budget feel to it that hasn't been heard before. I don't mean that it has none of Dixon's fine production flourishes, but the acoustic folky songs are prevalent, and there is a dark feel to the mood overall. Do So Well is a fine February Ingenue rewrite, and Tax The Churches is a rocking rant, but after that the energy drains away pretty fast. When I Woke Up and Invisible & Free are good efforts.

Note Pad #38 is a terrific return to form in 2001, but it is also a collection of demos and one-offs Dixon recorded over a period of time (like the debut), so some of this material has been aged. Two versions of (If I Could) Walk Away, and both are great. The rocking version that opens the record is accompanied by Test (a father's advice to his daughter on boy shopping), Wise Up, (slinky rocker with a funky arrangement), Girl With A P.O.V. (great hook in the chorus), and Betty Lou Got A Tattoo Too. Dixon tries his hand on Inside These Arms, and while he can't better the wife's version from Match Game, it plays well as a slow ballad. The definitive live version of Praying Mantis, with horn section and tight playing (Dixon, Jones, Hoover, Brock, Todd Wilhelm), closes out the record.

The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room 2006 is again plagued by the slow acoustic numbers, but most of it is interesting and well written and recorded. In Darkness Found is a catchy number, and Roommate does a pretty good approximation of Most Of The Girls..., while Secret Room returns to EEE territory to good effect. Marti's vocal on Room With A View is excellent. Not a great one, but there are some very real treats. The theme of rooms is an intriging idea, and Dixon holds it up through the whole record.

2008 finds two very different releases from Dixon. The first is Don Dixon and Marti Jones' download-only Lucky Stars. Five instrumentals interspersed with six vocal numbers (five by Marti), all very sweet, acoustic guitar-led folk, it is a fine thing in its way. Subtitled Lullabies For Old Souls, it delivers on that promise. The songs are good, if a bit twee, and the instrumentals allow Dixon to play around with ideas that are, within the context of the record, quite enjoyable. The other 2008 release is The Nu-Look by Don Dixon and the Jump Rabbits (Jaime Hoover and Jim Brock, Dixon's long-time studio and touring band). Most of the songs are well-chosen covers, and the power trio setting makes for some serious rocking. Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy is a great blues with smokin' hot guitar. The Night That Otis Died is a loving tribute to the great Otis Redding. There's a sexy/pretty pop song in Take A Walk With Me. Sputnik and Skinny both just ooze Jaime Hoover's best work with the Spongetones, and are classic power-pop. Amplifier and Six Pack bring more great syncopated, riff-heavy rock and roll. For the last look at Dixon the rocker, this record is perfect. There's a few soft spots, so not literally perfect, but a blast of a rocking record.

Don Dixon Sings The Jeffords Brothers was released in 2010. It is nothing except a great pop-soul record Carolina style. Really a delight. There is plenty of new "old school" soul out there, but this one deserves to be among the first-mentioned. The Jeffords Brothers have a feel for soul music that Dixon massages into gold. From 2006-2013, Dixon produced (and played and sang on) three records by Dip Farrel and the Truetones, all with songs from the Jeffords, and similar quality to this release. Dixon sings a cameo or two, but Dip is the featured vocalist.

2010 also saw Music From Robert Creep & Other Instrumentals, a download only release, and a bit of an odd bird. More of the movie music instrumentals/occasional themes heard on Lucky Stars, but also more developed ideas. And a few that rock. It is interesting to hear, and shows that Dixon can do more and still be, well, interesting. Not to be confused with what most people might expect from Dixon. But when you get over that, it still sounds like Todd Rundgren when his ideas don't coalesce into a whole. And I still like it quite a bit.

2011 brought another Marti Jones and Don Dixon release, Living Stereo. Unlike the previous Lucky Stars, this one is a proper CD release, and for the first time ever, a proper duets record for Don & Marti. It's just a load of fun. Feels Like 1972 gets a big production from Don, That Scorching Song has fantastic harmonies, and Trouble Is As Trouble Does features the amazing Mr. Brock's percussion. It's mostly a folky record, but they do it so well. Hanging My Laundry, Walk Outside, and Why, Why, Why all display special qualities. And then there's Marti's reading of These Arms Of Mine, and she just nails it with beauty and reverence.

Finally there is Dixon's latest, High, Filthy and Borderline 2013. For the most part, folk has replaced rock, even when some of the material could use a kick in the butt. There's still solid songwriting in Torpedo Road, Seraphina, and A Promise On The Sole Of My Shoe, and some rock on My Felon Girlfriend and Love Is All Attitude. It sounds good, but also could have benefited from more production. Some of it sounds just too casual. Too much just acoustic guitar. So not a high water mark, but some strong material mixed with some undercooked tracks.

I've had the great pleasure to see live shows with Dixon and Jones many times, including many nights with Dixon, Jones, Hoover and Brock, and their live show is always a blast. In that the two reside in Canton, Ohio, all of the tours either begin or end with a Cleveland show. If you get a chance to see them live, you'll have an unusually fine time.