Track listing: Television Song, Ordinary, The Ballad of Emily Rose, Ten Dollar Ring, The Ghost of Abe Lincoln, You, South Dakota, Hollow, Two Shots, Silver Line, Hailey GoodnightThe danceable groove of "Television Song" introduces Bryan Dunn’s latest release, Vicious Waltz. The 10-song album constitutes Dunn's best recording to date, with regard to his songwriting, production, and musical maturity. While his lyrics have drawn listeners into his songs since the early '90s, fans could previously count on his themes to frequent autobiographical loves and loves lost (more the latter than former). Vicious Waltz does not sidestep the topic entirely but surrounds it impressively with topics ranging from "Ordinary"’s comment on Top 40 artists' egos to "The Ghost of Abe Lincoln"’s anti-war strains.
With Vicious Waltz, Dunn consciously makes an impressive (and successful) effort to include a large cast of performers he’s worked with since relocating from Austin, Texas to New York City in 2001. Among them, Lara Ewen’s half of “Ten Dollar Ring”'s vocal duet and Jeremy Goldsmith’s lead guitar on “Silver Line” and "The Ghost Of Abe Lincoln" add a delightful variety to the album's instrumental brilliance. Dunn has contemplated bringing piano into his own songs for years, and Misty Boyce does a phenomenal job of incorporating just the right parts into each song she plays.
Boyce's tasteful lilts throughout "Ten Dollar Ring" create a late-night saloon vibe, giving the song a bottom-of-the-glass bluesy confessional feel that help expose the characters' rawest emotions. Then, taking several stylistic sharp turns, her piano amps-up the old-timey swing of "The Ghost Of Abe Lincoln" and then adds a beautiful depth to the travelogue/dedicatorial, "You, South Dakota." Still, similar to the rest of Bryan Dunn's repertoire, Vicious Waltz's greatest strength lies in his keen ability to write poppy, melodically pleasing narratives that hold listeners' attention throughout an entire album.
Dunn crafts carefully worded, succinct phrases to simultaneously paint visual pictures and convey entire spectra of emotions. "There’s a ten dollar ring on your finger / And a five dollar ring in my hand" brings to light two people's romantic incompatibility, their diverged paths in life and differing socioeconomic values. In the same words, we learn about the speaker's disappointment and feelings of material inadequacy. "Ordinary" takes a shot at the egotistical rock star type, "A subtle fraud, a wink and nod, you just want someone to applaud / And when you say 'love' you mean 'penetration.'" In just two lines, Bryan deftly attacks an overblown persona, onstage posing, selfish motivation, and cheap lyrical clichés. While I'm not sure of the song's exact inspiration, I envision Noel Gallagher acknowledging the tribute.
Vicious Waltz reaches its pinnacle in "Hollow." Bryan's vocals and Boyce's piano begin delicately, exploring the powerful emotions involved in an impersonal, physically intimate encounter. "All those pictures in their frames, I will never know those names / 'cause I can't say I didn't want that / I just needed something else." The album comes full circle at "Hollow"'s highpoint—all instruments and a chorus of singers uniting in the lament, "it leaves us hollow."
Each of Bryan Dunn's recordings, though truly enjoyed in their entirety by listeners, seems to uncannily produce one unofficial yet crystal clear fan favorite song. His contribution of “Sunshine” to 1993’s eponymous Echo Juliet album is still requested when he returns to his musical hometown of Austin. More recently, “Audio, Stereo, Radio” from 2005's Static and Scripture has garnered him both critical praise and elicits audience sing-a-longs at his gigs.
Perhaps this collection of songs will provoke more introspection as a whole, and not have that song that begs for happily inebriated hoots at live shows. Or, maybe the fan favorite might grow along with Dunn's work. My personal example being that after numerous listens to multiple mixes of the album over the past year, “Hollow” is still the one song that stands above the rest. Yet given its tempo, mood, and a more intense emotional subject matter, I'd feel a bit odd hollerin' for it in a club (but please, Bryan, consider this an advance request for "Hollow" at the next show I can attend).
Musicians performing on Vicious Waltz: Bryan Dunn, acoustic guitars & vocals; Misty Boyce, keyboards & melodica; Jeremy Goldsmith, guitars; Emily Helming, electric bass & vocals; Andy Mac, vocals & piano; Drew McKeon, drums, percussion, & guitars; Jim McNamara, upright bass; Jennie Muoio, vocals; Su Walenta, percussion; John Atzberger, mandolin & banjo; David Cerequas, electric bass, vocals, & harrassment; Elizabeth Dotson-Westphalen, trombone; Lara Ewen, vocals on "Ten Dollar Ring"; David Luther, saxophone; Nick Ogawa, cello; Chorus on "Hollow": Craig Chesler, Jesse Glendon, Mandi LeBlanc, Kelli Rae Powell, Emily Helming, David Cerequas, & Bryan Dunn