Graded on a Curve:
Gareth Dickson,
Invisible String

Though he’s worked with Max Richter, Juana Molina, and David Byrne, Glaswegian Gareth Dickson is probably best known as live accompanist for UK folkster Vashti Bunyan. His latest might change that situation, however. A guitarist nimble of finger and teeming with ideas as his vocals inevitably draw comparisons to Nick Drake, Dickson’s Invisible String provides a generous gateway into a fully realized sound-world.

Hmm, it seems like just last month I was remarking over the generally underwhelming nature of live records. Actually, it was just last month; jeepers creepers. I stand by my assessment, but of course must add that an especially appealing characteristic in the whole artistic shebang is the frequency of exceptions; Gareth Dickson’s Invisible String is one of those.

I’ll confess that Dickson’s newest has served as a personal introduction, and the impact of its 17 songs, captured in Istanbul and various French cities including a Paris rooftop, has been substantial. I’ve since caught up with his studio output, specifically ‘09’s Collected Recordings (which gathers unreleased tracks and selections from ‘05’s Spruce Goose and Solina Sea), the following year’s The Dance and ‘12’s “Noon” EP and Quite a Way Away.

Any review of Gareth Dickson that doesn’t mention Nick Drake is being disingenuous, for the singer-guitarist openly admits to the influence, and the revelation is readily apparent. But it’s far from his only point of reference; he also cites the less obvious but easily believable inspirations of Robert Johnson and Glenn Gould.

Due to his sometimes lengthy instrumental passages it’s perhaps more appropriate to describe him as a guitarist-singer, as we append experimentalist to the profile. Dickson’s been depicted as equal parts Brian Eno and Robbie Basho, and those associations aren’t off target; another of his stated influences is Aphex Twin.

Indeed, his studio material is an organically conceived, non-calculated fit for listeners cultivating shelves with the breadth to encompass John Fahey and Autechre. While this is not a vast audience, it is a sturdy one. But as a live document, Invisible String fruitfully emphasizes the folk side of the performer’s personality; his relationship with Vashti Bunyan makes total sense.

He also sings more here or at least that seems to be the case; opener “This is the Kiss” quickly underscores the similarities to Drake in voice but simultaneously illustrates important distinctions in guitar style and compositional structure. While Dickson comes out of a string tradition inhabited by Drake and Bert Jansch, he’s more ambitious and complex than the average coffeehouse fingerpicker.

“This is the Kiss” is a study in sheer range, a sparse beginning deftly growing in robustness across an increasingly fleet midsection. The return of Dickson’s voice helps glide it to conclusion and deserved applause. It’s a relatively expansive start, breaking the five-minute mark, but the glistening notes and warmly Brit-folk vocal inflection of “Once Upon” is as succinct as a 7-inch single.

It’s a small gem leading directly into Dickson’s gorgeous, harp-ish ambiance on “Song, Woman and Wine,” so Joanna Newsom fans take note. Next is “Agoa,” a crisp, dexterous instrumental that’s been in his repertoire for a decade, the tones cascading with the precise abandon produced by the combination of authorship and time; it’s worth noting this version as a minute shorter than the Collected Recordings reading, though either would be a ripe inclusion on a future installment of Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem compilation series.

“Like a Clock” is amongst Invisible String’s finest vocal showings. If reminiscent of Drake, Dickson displays no hesitancy in pushing this connection beyond that of mere disciple. In fact, his talent (if not his inflection) reminds me a little of early Eno and even Kevin Ayers, and his ability as a singer is decidedly accentuated with “Jonah,” the majority of which is frankly nothing like Drake as Dickson crafts a shape-changer descended from ‘80s Brit art-pop.

But with more guitar; the next cut oozes tense and lithe picking, and if Wim Wenders ever decides to helm another movie set in a sun-baked landscape, the extended “Get Together” is a ready candidate for the soundtrack. The adroitness continues on “The Dance – Electro Harmonix,” a sort of distillation/medley of two pieces from The Dance, and by its end I was kinda hearing an extension of post-rock initiatives.

Unwinding an air of folky tension/release and imbuing it with suitably cyclical string patterns is “The Big Lie,” as “Fifth (the impossibility of death),” a spacious yet concise instrumental, is a splendid evocation of mood. Fittingly, it’s via “Technology” that Invisible String conjures a bit of the hybridization found in the studio work. Accomplished with just guitar in hand, it’s an impressive feat.

When first perusing Dickson’s biography, I was struck by the title of Collected Recordings; its simplicity will be familiar to anyone that’s spent a few weeks of their life hunting around the literature and poetry sections of aromatic used book shops. Turns out this wasn’t a coincidence, for “Noon,” to my estimation at this juncture the album’s peak (and held in high regard by Dickson, for it’s the third release in which it figures), contains a lyrical borrowing from the great British poet Stevie Smith.

And this segues nicely into “Nunca Jamás,” the CD/digital’s sole non-original (the vinyl and cassette do add Drake’s “From the Morning” and intriguingly, “La Bamba”). Credited to the celebrated Argentinean folk musician Don Atahualpa Yupanqui, the cover tune offers some of Invisible String’s most forceful playing.

The wordless “Harmonics” wrangles emotion from unimpeachable technique and further reinforces Dickson’s success at going it alone, though he’s consistently weaving threads; one of its sweetest elements derives from execution implicitly suggesting the woody tone of a chamber instrument. And “Two Trains” again flirts with harp-like mannerisms to positive effect. This leads us to the assured beauty of “Climbing.”

Culled from different locations, Invisible String progresses like documentation of a single show, and not just in duration but through gradations of performance; in contrast to many live LPs, it’s not a continual succession of intended highpoints. For example, the superb atmospheric plunge of “Amber Sky” certainly registers as a set closer. Alas, it’s only such on the CD/digital package issued by Dickson’s Sleeping Man Records.

The Beacon Sound label is responsible for the cassette that holds the two abovementioned covers, and Unwork, Inc has pressed double vinyl totaling 21 tracks and limited to 300 copies. The variety of formats is appreciated, for the music of Gareth Dickson is built for a wider listenership. As 2014 enters its final third, Invisible String lands solidly in the year’s best.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Ben

    This guy is absolutely amazing. Just got into his music. Not surprised his influences are among my favorite: Basho, Drake, Eno, Biosphere, literary morsels, exotic hostels and tea. Great and respectful review!

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