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Album Review

Vancouver-based roots producer Steve Dawson has been called a Canadian T-Bone Burnett, and that analogy also holds true for the albums he occasionally releases under his own name. Like Burnett, Dawson began as a guitarist/singer/songsmith before finding greater acclaim and financial stability behind the board, and as label owner for his own Black Hen Records imprint. His production work for artists as diverse as Jim Byrnes, Kelly Joe Phelps, the Sojourners, and Old Man Luedecke is a good indication of his roots-oriented style. Nightshade, his first solo album in three years, spotlights his talents as a formidable guitarist (specifically on slide), songwriter, and bandleader. While Dawson's voice is pleasant in a casual, almost conversational, way, it's not powerful or gritty enough to do justice to some of these darker conceptual pieces. He also often obscures his downbeat lyrics in buoyant, bluesy, country pop that goes down easy but is somewhat at odds with songs such as "Torn & Frayed," "Darker Still," and the title track. As an instrumentalist, Dawson overdubs himself on electric, acoustic, pedal steel, mandotar and resonator guitars, and even banjo on the Tom Waits-styled "The Side of the Road." Easy flowing melodies such as "We Still Won the War" suit his voice best, but the disc's most impressive material explores murkier territory such as "The Fray." At five minutes, it's the disc's longest entry and one that successfully mixes strains of Neil Young, the Jayhawks, and the Band. Chris Gestrin's organ underpins the melody as Dawson's guitar slices through it. If the Drive-By Truckers got a hold of this, they would drive it home with a tougher approach, but it remains a highlight of this set. Dawson borrows licks from J.J. Cale on the swampy "Walk On," and slows the tempo on "Have That Chance," a melancholy ballad of losing everything and starting fresh, enhanced by searing slide lines that infuse an unexpected edge. Dawson's mountain influences appear on "Gulf Coast Bay," a blues/country composition turned jazzy by Gestrin's organ solo and featuring expert guitar picking, sounding somewhat like Leo Kottke. The sound and production throughout are stellar, and even if Dawson's singing doesn't match the level of his playing or songwriting, this is an enjoyable release that shows him to be, like fellow Canadian based peer Colin Linden, a multi-talented artist best known as a producer who is also worthy of more attention as a frontman.

Nightshade, Steve Dawson
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