Monday, February 11, 2013

Album Review: "Desert" by The Dead Tongues

The Dead Tongues released Desert on February 9
at The Cat's Cradle
Ryan Gustafson is a songwriter that I'd only heard of for years, but until Hopscotch 2012 I had never actively listened Gustafson.  Big mistake.  While I'm glad I made sure my first experience with the talented songwriter was a live show, I wish I'd hopped on the train earlier.  After releasing Donkey in 2009, Gustafson hopped around from notable projects like Max Indian, The Light Pines, and Mandolin Orange all the while working on instrumental tracks of his own under the moniker The Daughter Is Ambiguous.  However, 2013 marks the return of Gustafson's solo work, and this new Dead Tongues release is something truly special.  It's clear that Gustafson's break in songwriting allowed him to develop a sense of purpose within his songs, everything feels as raw and personal as it did on Donkey, but it feels far more dynamic than Gustafson's previous release.

Each track has a defining voice, driving the album down a road that contains many exciting peaks and curves, but ultimately arrives at the same comforting sense of sincerity that drew the listener in to begin with.  Ranging from alt-country anthems to expansive six minute tracks like "Milestone" that careen effortlessly through a wide-open musical pallet, Desert is a unique album that can truly connect with listeners through powerful lyrics and gorgeous instrumentation.

Gustafson's lyricism is something that can't be emphasized enough, while each song remains entirely enjoyable musically, the textures and feelings that are brought out through Gustafson's raw approach to songwriting is what makes The Dead Tongues the powerhouse they are.  Tracks like "Depression" boast a bouncy yet rustic approach both melodically and musically, but from the opening lines it's clear that this song contains much more than a catchy hook.  "I get in depression/Like you get into cars driving you home/Like she got into cutting/And I got into drinking on my own".  One of the joys of this album is that each song contains these lyrical gems, these moments where you feel like a veil has been lifted between you and the musicians and you can truly connect with their music.  Tracks like "The Desert" and "No Intentions" feel like sincere statements that can evoke the memories of a particular place or time, sonically they contain memorable melodies and lyrically they draw upon feelings of self reflection and aimlessness that many can immediately connect with.

Desert is an album that's wonderfully diverse to be as cohesive as it is.  Gustafson's songwriting can be likened to Ryan Adams, but it feels like Gustafson is a bit more comfortable with roaming into untravelled territory than the former Carolina songwriting sensation.  Take "The Harbor" for example, it's a track that feels like it could have been belted out by Dylan or Cash, it's a rustic narrative that's driven by unabashed honesty and reflection.  The Dead Tongues are a band that's filled with nothing but talent and potential and Desert marks the return of an amazingly talented songwriter to bask in the spotlight he deserves.  After seeing Gustafson in the contributing role so frequently with acts like The Human Eyes and The Light Pines, it's nice to see his ideas at the forefront once again, as it produces incredible results.  Desert is a fantastic album that roams into the vast unknown, it's filled with nomadic reprises and a sense of comfort in the uncertainty that comes with that.  The Dead Tongues have embraced that uncertainty through approaching their music with rich dynamics, producing an album that contains old-country ballads, powerful pop gems, and everything from strings to organs to fill in the details.  I can't wait for the round of shows that comes with this release, having missed the Donkey-days, this will be a wonderful introduction to a full-band Ryan Gustafson project.  The Dead Tongues are speaking clearly and Desert is a powerful statement from Gustafson on his staying power within the Triangle music scene.

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