Review of Orwell Court [12k2035]

Brainwashed (US)

The exquisitely curated 12k label has always had a diverse roster, but Gareth Dickson may be the most “out there” artist to be working with the label.  In this case, it is because his acoustic guitar and vocal work is so much more along the lines of conventional singer-songwriter when placed aside the label’s otherwise more electronic and abstract catalogue.  However, Dickson’s work has an understated complexity and depth that makes it a perfect fit for the label. And furthermore, this is another excellent work from this Scottish artist.

At first, Dickson’s work seems like standard acoustic folk music, though very well done.  On the surface, it has shades of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, though the former more in vocals and the latter in actual guitar playing.  On a song like “Snag With The Language,” his rapid guitar plucking is reminiscent of Cohen’s first few albums, but the Glasgowian accented singing is distinctly different, coming across very Drake-like on the darker “The Hinge of the Year.”

More attentive listening, however, reveals so many more layers to be heard, and expertly produced and mastered.  The intimacy of opener “Two Halfs” (featuring Vashti Bunyan on both additional instrumentation and backing vocals) makes this immediately apparent.  Other departures are more drastic:  for example, his unexpected use of backing vocals (by Celine Brooks) on “The Big Lie” results in an even richer, more nuanced approach that features him doing quite a lot with intentionally little.

As someone whose appreciation for music of this style is mostly limited to the aforementioned Leonard Cohen, it is Dickson’s subtle accents and treatments to the music that made this a captivating album for me.  On the previously mentioned “Snag With the Language,” he generates a great sense of space around the guitar, and there is a particularly impressive mood shift to an even darker sound as it goes on, a variation made all the more noticeable by a more rhythmic playing style and the introduction of actual percussion into the mix.

There is a greater sense of electronic instrumentation on instrumental “The Solid World,” with Dickson creating an expansive ambient space, simultaneously understated and delicate.  The electronics remain the focus, with the guitar acting in more of an accent capacity, but even with that somewhat drastic shift in style, the song fits in perfectly with the remainder of the album.

The album closes on a cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” which is a fitting choice given the original song’s blending of electronic and traditional elements, as well as a distinctly depressive mood.  Dickson does not tinker with the formula too dramatically:  his overall approach to music remains faithful to the original, but keeps the song from ending up in the cliché “acoustic cover of familiar song” bin of boredom by putting his own distinct stamp on it.

As someone who is very selective about what I like in this style of music, Orwell Court is an exemplary example of acoustic-centric music.  The album speaks volumes as to his ability and adeptness in not only writing and performing songs, but his overall expertise in contributing greatly to a style that is so intentionally minimalist.  The additional effects and instrumentation Gareth Dickson has employed here go a long way in fleshing out the sound, but never upsetting the delicate nature of the music, staying understated yet amazing from beginning to end.

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