CD review: Dotsun Moon's "A Swan's Song" illuminates the soul of a band in transition
Rich Flierl may be at the mercy of circumstances, but new CD makes clear his rage to grow and innovate. Let’s hope A Swan’s Song isn’t.
Dotsun Moon was rolling in the wake of 2011’s outstanding 4am, but a couple years later singer Mary Ognibene departed the band, leaving songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rich Flierl wondering what to do next. An extended search for a worthy replacement proved difficult – understandable, given how perfectly Ognibene’s talents meshed with Flierl’s dark, brooding vision. 4am wandered the borderlands between trip-hop, shoegaze and the lush, cinematic alt.Americana we might associate with The Lost Patrol and The Blueflowers. (Flierl describes it as “DreamBeat Noir,” which is as good a tag as anything I can come up with.) It was a seductive amalgam, and it’s hard to imagine easily replacing any element of the collaboration.
Flierl auditioned a number of singers, but no one really panned out. One who showed promise was Shana James, whose vocal style opened the door on a decidedly clubbier direction. (Imagine a slightly poppier Phantogram, a band for which Flierl has a great deal of praise). But in the end, James wasn’t willing to fully buy into the project, which frankly is a damned shame. “Saturday Drags On” and “Blossom,” the two cuts on which she features, suggest a fascinating potential direction.
Ultimately, Flierl opted for what might best be seen as a temporizing approach. He discarded the takes he’d done with new vocalists (James excepted) and opted to release A Swan’s Song using the original vox tracks he’d cut with Ognibene during their pre-split 2012/13 sessions.
The final result is wonderful end to end, if a tad schizophrenic. Some tunes would have been right at home on 4am, while others represent a distinct evolution in Dotsun Moon’s sound. The lead track, “OmniSlyce,” manages to import the atmosphere of 4am into an upbeat electropop gem, and in doing so builds a perfect bridge from what has gone before into what comes next. The two James songs are, as you’d imagine, the most noticeably at odds with the group’s previous work.
If you were looking to be overly critical, you might say Flierl currently resides in no-man’s land. This is probably fair, and I suspect he’d admit as much. The previous effort was one of my Best of 2011 for good reason. As I noted in my original review:
I’ve always been a sucker for bands descended from the Portishead side of the trip-hop family tree (oddly, I like many of these artists more than Portishead themselves), and Mary Ognibene’s understated, sultry delivery hits me right between the, ummm, well, let’s just say eyes here to avoid any trouble with the broadcast standards department, shall we? Musically, Rich Flierl (keys, guitars, and the primary songwriter) conjures a smoky, minimalist economy of sound that feels quite polished despite its sparseness.
Who do they remind me of (because since you haven’t heard them, we have to triangulate via bands you may know, right)? Well, I mentioned Portishead, and Flierl admits to a fondness for Massive Attack and Jah Wobble. “Who Do You Love?” suggests that he’s heard a bit of Love & Rockets, as well. There are places where Ognibene reminds me a lot of Girl Next Door’s Kat Green and the CD’s more animated numbers put me in mind of a sort of noir version of Supreme Beings of Leisure. Other places I swear I hear bits and pieces of The Church, U2, maybe a little Echo. Or maybe I’m projecting – hard to say. Sounds and influences sneak into a mix from all over the place.
But Flierl seems to have little interest in sticking to a formula. He’s dying to grow, to innovate and evolve, and if you’re paying attention you can almost hear the frustration in A Swan’s Song. As I think happens to all of us, circumstance sometimes stands in the way of progress.
I don’t know what comes next for Dotsun Moon. Does Flierl finally find the singer to propel him down the track toward the vision he clearly has in his head? Does he abandon the project to work on something else? (One doesn’t name a CD A Swan’s Song for no reason, after all.) I can’t say. I do know that he’s a singular talent who has a lot to say musically, and I expect the next thing he produces to be every bit as revealing as 4am and A Swan’s Song.