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Dan Michaelson & the Coastguards
Saltwater Emily Moore , March 5th, 2009 08:41

Dan Michaelson, frontman of London four-piece Absentee, is a gravelly basso profondo to be filed alongside Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. He shares the (affected) Midwestern drawl of the former and the black humour of the latter, but as part of Absentee, that trademark growl is merely one element in a rollicking, blues-tinged sound that draws heavily from literate American pop of the Pavement vintage. On Saltwater, though, his first "solo" outing (he's actually joined by more indie-rock pals than you can shake a tambourine at, including members of the Magic Numbers, the Broken Family Band, Fields and the Rumble Strips), Michaelson reveals a talent for spare, yearning, genuinely heart-wrenching melodies.

Saltwater wears its influences on its sleeve, but when they're as grand as the darker moments of Leonard Cohen and Will Oldham, and as idiosyncratically embodied, this can only be a good thing. The venerable, vulnerable, emotionally manipulative shadow of Cohen hangs over the entire album, particularly on standout track 'I Was a Gentleman', which plays like a stripped-down version of 'I'm Your Man'. Against a shuffly, loungy wash of low guitars, Michaelson asks, guilefully but not maliciously, "Did I make you think I was a gentleman? I understand how it could seem that way." He certainly never pretends honour, or even always honesty, claiming somewhat unconvincingly on 'Old Friend', "She wouldn't marry me, she don't come around for tea… she's an old friend of mine that I see from time to time." Just like when Cohen crooned, "If I have been unkind, I hope that you can just let it go by," you can't help but pity him, even though you're the one he's wronged.

Opener 'Ease On In' is a gentler tease: "You say you're leaving," Michaelson sighs, then eventually adds, "Some clothes on the line, but just till they've dried." A horn section (the Rumble Strips boys, who show up on several tracks) sighs in and out, delicately, fading just when a lesser songwriting talent would demand a sentimental crescendo. The effect, and indeed the whole of the album, is brilliantly understated, especially coming from one better known for writing songs with titles like 'Something to Bang' (and he's not talking about percussion). Only one track, the ska-inflected, very Rumble Strips 'Your 2nd Man', falls flat, with riffs borrowed from the Bosstones and parcelled out to violin and bass to lumbering effect. But closer 'Love in Line', with its Bonnie Prince-worthy vocal line that twists in and out of tunefulness against a meandering acoustic guitar, slows the pace back down. There's a hint of Smog in its darkly thrumming midsection, and in the four plucked high notes at its close that echo against a wall of overpowering silence. It is a spellbinding album, and it's left plenty of reviewers (including this one) quietly hoping Michaelson doesn't return to the Absentee fold any time soon.