Dean Station,
Raising the Root
(independent, 2007)

From the opening bars of "Feather," the first song on Dean Station's second album Raising the Root, the listener is treated to a warm, welcoming experience, the aural equivalent of dangling one's feet in a lazy river on a summer's day. It doesn't last -- summer days never do -- and well before it's over clouds have swept in from the horizon. But even though it lasts too briefly, while it does last it's a delight.

Raising the Root centers itself on the multi-instrumental team of Levi Dean (vocals, mandolin, guitar, fiddle) and Amanda Dean (vocals, guitar, keyboards, spoons), who harmonize naturally and whose voices create a very distinctive blend. Levi's mandolin work is likewise distinctive; he has a habit of playing slightly behind the beat, a jazzman's trick that is unexpected here and which makes the songs stand out all the more. He does the same with his singing, which is unfortunately not his strong suit. Levi has a tendency to slur and run his words together, which does the songs a bit of a disservice. He doesn't do it all the time -- and notably not at all when singing harmony with Amanda -- but it happens just often enough to be noticeable, and for it to become a distraction.

The album's strongest song is undoubtedly the sweet, soaring and all too short "Anybody's Guess," whose lovely chorus, and gentle brushed drums courtesy of the able Charlie O'Neal, stand out in the mind long after the album is over, and which could actually stand one more go-round in the song itself. Other good songs include the aforementioned "Feather," the surging, bluegrass-styled "Flat Footin' Girl," Amanda's solo numbers "Go Ahead" and "Pocket Full of Grace" and the excellent "Desire." They reveal a variety of songwriting and tempo changes that demonstrate the breadth and depth of Americana that Dean Station is trying to explore with this album.

Unfortunately this doesn't last. The Deans have front-loaded their CD with all the choicest songs, and the rest of the album suffers as a result. "Bad Dog" starts off rough and shapes up into an acceptable man-as-dawg blues workout, whereas "Mid January" starts off as a maudlin meditation on a prostitute being eaten alive by the city, and it never really gets better. The album continues unevenly from there -- "Whisper" is probably the best song on the album's back half, and even that suffers from a subdued tempo and more of Levi's slurred singing.

Even these bumps in the road could have been smoothed out however, or at least eased, had the album ended strongly. Not the case here. "May Day in Court" is a story-song that falls flat on its face, trying far too hard with far too little to recommend it. Neither the bad-girl banter in the verses or the overly repetitive "order in the court" choruses did much to engage my imagination or to set my toe tapping. I've gotten more enjoyment with more reason out of episodes of Matlock, sorry to say.

And that's how a bank of clouds can rain on a perfectly good summer's day and muddy up that river where you've been soaking your toes. Raising the Root is a good CD that, through slightly better sequencing and maybe a little judicious cutting of the playlist, could have been a great CD. There's a lot of fine music here, and a lot of promise ... and with a little luck and some hard work, Dean Station can live up to that promise in the future.

music review by
Jay Whelan

9 October 2010

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