I've written about four releases from Sean Ryan over the past six years - as a solo singer/songwriter, as part of Jim the Mule, and as the leader of the Dawn (and Sean Ryan & the Dawn). I've always liked his singing voice - a mature blend of authority, precision, and expression. But with much of his work as a solo act and bandleader I've found the combination of standard Americana arrangements and plain-spoken writing dully professional - not vivid enough to avoid the generic.
So the new six-track Waiting on the Storm album from the Dawn came as a pleasant surprise - in particular the expansive rocker "Bring It All Home," a forceful jam that oozes personality and life and has a clear if winding path. An album full of similar songs would quickly become tiresome, but as a startling change-up from Ryan's past work, it reverberates through the entire record.
Each track on the album, actually, feels designed to showcase a different facet of Ryan and his band - keyboardist/singer Jordan VanOpdorp, bassist/singer Garrin Jost, and drummer Josh Womack. But for the keyboards, the slinky, hooky opener "Freezeframe" sounds like a tribute to the disbanded Jim the Mule. "Troubled Days" is an up-tempo shit-kicker. "Phases" has a flair for soulful funk rock. And the title track, with its slightly unsteady falsetto, languid pace, and delicate piano flourishes, is poised alluringly between liquid and air until the commanding electric guitar places it firmly on the ground.
Only "Cold Rain, Ice & Snow" conforms to what I would have expected from Ryan. And while that song might have melted into previous albums, it jumps out here as a contrast, and a reminder that Ryan's voice is most potent in simple settings. The key to its success here is that it represents a breather and alludes to the core of Ryan's music rather than merely being an encapsulation of it.
But "Bring It All Home" is the undoubted highlight, rooted in Americana but growing far beyond it. At the outset, it shows a sturdy framework, the thick organ-y keyboards contrasting with biting guitar and a sinuous singing style to create a serious groove. The fluid, expressive, piercing opening guitar solo would have been the unsurprising climax of a lesser song, but here it's merely the table-setter for an extended call-and-response jam between the organ and guitar over pulsing bass and drums, building to an actual climax of intertwined vocals and guitar. It's still Ryan's roots rock, but it's a transcendently free and loose expression of it.
The Dawn will mark the release of Waiting on the Storm from 8 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, August 23, at Len Brown North Shore Inn (700 North Shore Drive, Moline).
For more information on the Dawn, visit Facebook.com/TheDawnMusicOfficial.
Jordan Danielsen, Old Soul
After the willful variety of Jordan Danielsen's 2011 album Night Alone in the City, his new Old Soul record certainly benefits from a consistent style, 12 unerringly pleasant tracks anchored by the singer/songwriter's clear, clean, slightly twangy voice and mostly an acoustic guitar.
Yet its comforting tone becomes somewhat suffocating over the album's length, and when the songs call for a shift to the dark, the gentle arrangements and careful polish undermine them.
The second track, "Ninnian's Ballad," summarizes those problems - an approachable folk tune aspiring to huge resonance ("I joined the cause and fought the union fight / For a higher wage and a human right") but lacking the telling detail to earn it. Even more problematic is that the singing and music exude hope while the lyrics document struggle, death, and eventually cancer. The ultimate peace the song finds can't bridge the gulf between medium and message.
There's a similar tonal disconnect on "Rainy Days Are Good Days for Playing Sad, Sad Songs," with the words at odds with the the upbeat rootsy rock and Danielsen's friendly voice. The phrase "sweet depression" carries an air of condescension, as if being miserable were somehow the coolest thing in the world.
But if Danielsen can't yet pull off being heavy, Old Soul also shows off his considerable wheelhouse.
"Denver Colorado" has a soulful James Taylor vibe, dexterity in the vocals, and a striking counter-melody in the guitar during the chorus.
"Us My Love" starts with a great couplet - "You've got a flicker in your mind / And I got metal in my bones" - and the piano melody poised against the rhythm ukulele casts an enchanting, tropical spell.
"The Shape I'm in" is almost unbearably bright in the restrained joy of its singing, nimble fiddle, and warm guitar - crafting a great groove without forcing it.
Danielsen's skill in finding the right musical details in light instrumentation plays best with simple ideas and feelings - as on the closing title track and the melancholy unburdened by angst of "Carolynn." The singer/songwriter is at his strongest when he works small.
Jordan Danielsen will perform from 9 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, August 21, at 11th Street Precinct (1107 Mound Street, Davenport) with Jef Spradley, and from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 23, at Do the Brew (Sheridan Meadows Park, Eldridge) with Carolynn Johnston.
For more information on Jordan Danielsen, visit JordanDanielsenMusic.com.