Ok, to be clear from the very start, Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding are described as a Chicago jazz-folk ensemble so, for some, inclusion here may be construed as a bit of a stretch even if we do surely by now accept that Americana is a very broad church. When the lead instrument is a vibraphone with the close support of the strings of violin, viola and cello, then that stretch takes on limousine like proportions.
Dawson has abandoned any pretence of using traditional song structures. By Dawson’s own admission “the songs go in unexpected places….I didn’t try to conform to a traditional narrative.” The result is an album of quietly affecting songs that have a tendency to drift and meander in unexpected directions.
The opening title track gives a hint as to where the album is going. A dreamscape of strings supporting Dawson’s strong, emotive vocals gives way to a long outro where the aforementioned vibraphone is allowed to wander where it will. By the time that the beautifully sung and played next track ‘Mastodons’ has wound its way to a conclusion it is clear that, if we are in unusual musical territory here, it is a terrain to be savoured and embraced. It is music to wash over a weary soul, perhaps prescient in its timing in view of the madness in which we find ourselves now.
Irony of ironies, Dawson describes the album as a reflection on what he describes as the undoing of the fabric of society. If his muses on this subject were driven by climate change, global rage and violence rather than the odd devastating pandemic it does not take away the feeling that this is an apt release for our times.
This is all starting to sound rather gloomy and that would be a mistake. The music and arrangement here are a treat to all ears. Listen to the almost 8 minute long, wonderfully titled ‘The Monkey Mind Is On The Prowl’ and be blown away by the feeling contained within Dawson’s vocals, calling here on the emotional intensity of Neil Finn at his most plaintive as the outro stretches on for 3 minutes or more.
That this is a collective rather than a solo project cannot be denied and Dawson rightly credits one of that collective, Jason Roebke, for the wonderful string arrangements that are such an integral part of the album. Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and drummer Charles Rumback complete the trio who, known for their inventiveness on the Chicago free jazz scene, comprise the collective that is Funeral Bonsai Wedding.
Is it Americana? Who cares; this is imaginative, risk taking and a beautiful listen.