a tiny draught of the vile stuff

When we were teenagers, my best friend and I used to be incredibly possessive about our favourite music. I went through a stage of adoring Biffy Clyro – while they were still an experimental rock act – and my best friend loved them too. Instead of delighting in sharing taste, we were bitterly competitive in our fervour for the music and our knowledge of the band. It seems absurd now, but I remember how angry she got when I found Reuben. She even told me they were hers and I wasn’t allowed to like them. Of course, I fell in love anyway, because love is subject to no discipline. But why did we fight over ‘ownership’ at all? Now it seems silly; if I share music taste with someone these days, I’m hungry to share it, to feast on it together.

Nevertheless, music-sharing as an adult is ruled by its own conventions. When we talk about music with someone, we engage in a tussle of subjectivities – we play a game. We assess the other person’s taste, explore it against our own, at first tentatively and then gradually with more confidence. Once we’ve established some common ground, we can begin to exchange gifts. The first recommendation is always slightly bashful, accompanied by a throw-away admission that “it doesn’t matter if you don’t like it – it’s subjective after all”. The receiver is politely grateful. The ideal situation is for you to like but not love the music: then you can say “oh this is pretty good!” and everyone is pleased, but not embarrassed. There is no breakage – “oh I hate this please turn it off!” – and no excess.

However, if you fall inexplicably and suddenly in love with the gift, the conventions drop away and it gets awkward, at least briefly, as it did with me and experimental folk artist Richard Dawson this week. My friend Duncan recommended it in passing, and after one play of Nothing Important, I fell so hard for it that I almost felt like I’d stolen it from him.

Richard Dawson, Spotify tells me, is a Tyneside-based esoteric singer-songwriter whose shambolic, guitar-driven folk music has drawn comparisons to artists including King Creosote and John Martyn. I have no idea about that. I’m not well-versed in folk, since I’ve only listened to bits and pieces from the folk world. My early life was peppered with my dad’s taste in folk artists, like Christie Moore, John Renbourn and the Pogues – and pepper really isn’t my favourite condiment. At 11 years old, I accompanied my dad to see an ageing Donovan and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band perform at a church-cum-art-gallery in Birmingham, which left me with a temporary taste for folk classics like ‘Black Is the Colour’. A trip to Dublin and a growing sense of my Irish roots sparked a passing taste for Irish folk, but I really don’t know enough to say if I’m a fan of the genre or not.

Still, where I feel most connected to folk music, it’s where it resonates like sympathetic strings with my dad’s passion for it. So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I love this folk from the North-East of England, close to where my father grew up and gained his stubborn dialect – a Sunderland accent which lingers even now, two lifetimes and landscapes later. I feel weirdly at home in the North-East even though I’ve never lived there.

And so I immediately felt at home with Richard Dawson, even though he’s far from easy listening. Like Robin Williamson, his music demands your attention, and it’s definitely hateable. It’s almost exclusively difficult: the song structures are unwieldy and hard to follow (‘The Vile Stuff’ and ‘Nothing Important’ are both more than 16 minutes long), and the vocal delivery is visceral and often pained. Where a lyric holds violence, Dawson will wail and scream it, stretching his vocal chords to their limit. “I am nothing – you are nothing – nothing important” he blasts 4 minutes through ‘Nothing Important’, and then again at 6 minutes, breaking down into a yell I can’t even imagine him replicating. The same thing that draws me to the chaos of noise rock guitar draws me to his voice, expressing on some level beyond semantics what it means to suffer. It’s cathartic even on days when you’re not suffering.

It feels as if Richard Dawson’s voice is almost an extension of his guitar. They often move in parallel, and where they don’t, one will lead you to the other so that the progress feels natural even on a long journey through quite disparate sounds and chord sequences. There are long periods of tenderness and beauty, but also whole segments of songs which feel chaotic and disjointed, like the beginning of ‘Judas Iscariot’ before it drops into grinding, persistent bluesy guitar – where suddenly and unexpectedly it sounds like an un-affected Fat White Family, or Seasick Steve if he got really furious. Dawson lets his strings growl and hiss and complain and leaves them raw and bleeding on the recordings. In that sense, ‘The Vile Stuff’ is vile, acerbic and violent and – I imagine some would say – unlistenable. But right now, I’m loving its vileness.

So thanks… erm… for the recommendation, Duncan. To hell with convention?

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