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Richard Dawson
Nothing Important Matt Evans , November 25th, 2014 12:20

There's an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry declines an offer to go and see legendary crooner Mel Tormé, aka the Velvet Fog, explaining that he "can't watch a man sing a song". I wouldn't go that far, but I sympathise. I have a tendency to relate far more readily to female voices. But then there's Richard Dawson.

The first time I saw him, last year in Glasgow, I went along with no great expectations, perhaps even a little cynicism. He opened with 'The Brisk Lad', a harrowing and defiant tale of sheep theft on the grim Yorkshire moors, performed a cappella and virtually unamplified. It was astonishing – direct, raw, wounded, loud as fuck. The voice of a bear smouldering on a peat fire, the words of poet, the cold-stare intensity of a lone trawlerman whose shipmates were lost to the waves, the buzzing alertness of a questing improviser, a soul as old as the landscape he sung about. Between songs, this awkward, amiable, irresistibly charming young man told stories, cracked groan-worthy gags and snacked on the petals of an unwitting chrysanthemum. I'd never seen anything like him. And, clearly, neither had Jerry Seinfeld.

But gigs are easy, right? You're there, in the moment. There's a connection. An immediacy. There's eye contact. Acoustic tricks amplifying emotional effects. Mood-enhancing libations. Flecks of spittle arcing in a spotlight. Records are hard. For those of us who care about such things, Dawson eases us into Nothing Important with pleasing symmetry. There are four tracks: two relatively short Biblical-themed instrumentals bookending two 16-minute personal, lyrical pieces. Simplicity of structure masking perversity of intent.   

Opener 'Judas Iscariot' is a magnificent example of Dawson's solo guitar instrumentals – semi-acoustic but ragged, the signals dragged through dirty pickups and into an amp drenched with Tizer and patched together with Panini stickers. It's bold and welcoming, somewhat bluesy, somewhat folky, somewhat way-out and skronk-tastic, messily precise or precisely messy. It sounds, by turns, like Muddy Waters idly jamming out ideas in the bathroom, a Ronnie Hazelhurst theme played by a cocker spaniel or Marc Ribot at his most elegant.

Where 'Judas…' is boisterous, almost lairy, 'Nothing Important' is intimate and considered. On first listen, it seems improvised, its delicate, meandering sprawl mirrored by seeming stream-of-consciousness reminiscences.  On closer inspection, the intricate filigrees and scattered fragments of half-remembered memory are carefully wrought and brilliantly, intimately interwoven. What emerges is a kind of dreamlike biography, rich in quasi-fantastical everyday detail and mundanely honeyed imagery:

In the scullery of the cub-hut my clarinet falls
into a sack of flour – a flurry of pins
squashed into the leather handle
a crescent moon of stricken fig-wasps.

As the song's melodies fragment into near-chaos, Dawson plunges deeper into the minutiae of memory, obsessing in an exasperated fashion over the futile details of nik-naks, trinkets and ephemera:

A toby jug filled to the brim with curtain hooks
A sheepskin rug discoloured with tobacco smoke
within its braids concealed a rank
of plastic soldiers set to burst underfoot

Eventually he asks himself: "I don't care about these things. 
Why do they remain so clear while the faces of my loved ones disappear?" Sometimes coherent, warm, and beautiful, sometimes confused, jumbled and terrifying, it's not only a portrait of Dawson's own specific family history, but an encapsulation of all our experiences of digging into childhood memory and family myth-making.

The theme of memory persists in 'The Vile Stuff', though the reminiscences shift away from family and childhood and grief, into early adolescence and alcohol. It's an astonishing piece of music – a dogged stomp adorned by astoundingly dextrous Arabesque modes that lend portentous gravitas to increasingly inebriated and self-destructive teenage behaviour. Again, Dawson's lyrics have a Chaucer-by-way-of-Alan Bennett flair that far transcends the prosaic nature of their narratives.

Si Shovell fills a Reebok pump

With the pulp from his belly

Then sets off a fire extinguisher

In the girl's dormitory

The narrative driver for all of this is the titular 'Vile Stuff' – an unnamed and diabolical spirit stashed within an outwardly innocuous Coca-Cola bottle on a school trip. The chorus finds Dawson intoning the name of this concoction, pleading innocence, moderation and sobriety, but slipping into a betraying discordance straight out of Faith No More's 'Malpractice' as he does so. The song's climax comes with the pivotal lines:

He reckons I should try meditation

He reckons it could benefit my peace of mind

Here, the final three words are given mocking contrast by swirling chaos that evokes the strings of Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' liquid-laughing by the side of a dual carriageway. It's only at this point, and the final two minutes of densely, darkly mind-rending horror, that the album's sound palette expands beyond the direct, acoustic simplicity of one man and his battered guitar. This economy serves Dawson well, relying on upfront intimacy before finally bringing the noise. And what noise it is – a multi-layered, swirling abyss of wooze and booze and confusion, a winding down of neurons, a plunge into dreamless darkness. The latter is precisely what's offered by the minimal instrumental closer 'Doubting Thomas' – space and stillness, tentative, fuzzy chords, controlled feedback, respite, eventual (temporary) peace.

Nothing Important is a remarkable record – at times deeply, painfully intimate, but also witty, bawdy, surreal, disquieting, nostalgic, brash and fearlessly individual. While Dawson draws loosely on folk traditions, be it from the North East of England, the Appalachian Mountains or the Gulf of Arabia, his sound also brings to mind more modern sources – Beefheart, Earth, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Bill Orcutt, Sun City Girls, tiny glimpses of drone, minimalism, avant-metal, math-rock, psychedelia. It's all of these things and yet none of them. As if aware of the difficulty of summing up his aesthetic, Dawson himself offers a perfect if oblique self-portrait towards the end of 'The Vile Stuff'. Domestic mysticism. Football. Folk horror. Childhood. Looking back to move forward. A voice like a domestic heating appliance. These lines say it all:

My bedroom walls are papered with the stripes of Newcastle United
Between which I perceive the presence of a horse-headed figure
Holding aloft a flaming quiver of bramble silhouettes
He is the King of Children
Singing like a boiler: 'Tomorrow is on its way'