Graded on a Curve:
David Dondero,
The Filter Bubble Blues

It’s January of 2020, people. By the end of this US election year, a maelstrom will have taken place. But really, we are in the midst of an ever-shifting tumult that is made tolerable by an ability to detach through the conveniences of modernity, or by simply being consumed by the harshness of daily survival. On The Filter Bubble Blues, singer-songwriter David Dondero focuses on this disengagement and grapples with the issues, social and political, that have led to it. Wielding a sharply articulated viewpoint rather than mere didacticism and sloganeering, the record’s best moments attain the therapeutic as the ten songs are strongly constructed and delivered. It’s out January 17 through Fluff & Gravy.

The Filter Bubble Blues is David Dondero’s tenth full-length since debuting solo in 1999 with …The Pity Party. before that he was in Sunbrain, a band that’s been tagged as a punk affair. I relate this description secondhand, as I haven’t heard Sunbrain, nor have I heard Dondero’s prior nine records, which isn’t unusual in this contemporary music-saturated landscape. Well, except that in 2006, NPR’s All Songs Considered ranked him as one of the top ten living songwriters.

That sort of accolade will surely lead some folks to further investigate the recipient’s body of work, and had I been aware of the honor, I might’ve done just that. I do say might however, because it’s impossible to know exactly what would’ve transpired. A cold reality is that the public didn’t flock to him en masse after he made the All Songs Considered list; today, per Fluff & Gravy’s press release for the new LP (his first for the label), Dondero’s “at best, uncomfortable” regarding the compliment.

With The Filter Bubble Blues, the artist makes a positive first impression, which is doubly noteworthy given the socio-politically unrelenting nature of the music. But unrelenting is not the same as grueling, as there are a few moments of respite along the way, and also because of the general indie folky meets singer-songwriter sensibility. Opener “Easy Chair” reminds a bit of Conor Oberst crossed with another recent musical acquaintance, Los Angeles via Nashville vocalist and tunesmith Chris Crofton.

The later comparison relates to a gentle approach that productively offsets the lyrical pileup of imagery in the expression of disillusionment and despair. “When the Pendulum Swings” extends the placidity but adjusts into country-folk complete with atmospheric pedal steel as the subject matter tightens onto the seemingly endless speculations over when the current US President’s reckless behavior will finally lead to his undoing.

“Underwater Sculpture Garden” doesn’t lessen the topicality, but as an ornate insult to Confederate sympathizers everywhere, it’s tinged with humor and does reduce the weightiness a bit. And through a turn to the personal and with a touch of birdsong, “Laying at Your Feet” lightens matters even more, with Dondero reminding me a bit of Damien Jurado here.

It should surprise no one abreast of recent events that the next track, “Heather Heyer,” concerns a contemporary tragedy, though the song pulls off a fine balance, lambasting bigotry and hate (and the putrid, quickly notorious “both sides” comment) while remembering, indeed per the lyrics, magnifying the life of Heyer, who didn’t die in vain.

Dondero bats a high percentage here, but I do have a few quibbles, like with the blasé/ detached doo-wop/ sho-wop backing vocals at the front and back of “The Presidential Palace of Pornography.” On other records, this (decidedly indie) tactic might be indicative of a larger problem, but not here really, though it does stick out a bit, as the song is a stinging commentary that brought Phil Ochs to my mind.

“You Must Like the Word Like” starts out as a skewering of inarticulateness in modern life, but then thankfully morphs into an upbeat rumination on the numerous meanings of the word. While it’s…likeable, the tune still registers as fairly minor, especially next to the gun control-themed bitch-slap to blathering politicians that is “Empty Gesture.”

As it returns to non-political territory, “Thought I Was a Hurricane” can also be assessed as minor, but it’s considerably more than likeable, in large part due to a pleasant ambiguity as to the degree that it’s all autobiographical, plus a late-song twist that’s hilarious, and one that I shan’t spoil. It sits in sharp contrast to the stinging rebuke of “investment property” capitalism that is finale “All the Empty Houses.”

But the song is more than just that, additionally delving into the victimization of the homeless and the vilification of migrants. It stands amongst the most instrumentally rich tracks here and ends David Dondero’s album on a high note. If 2020 is promising a maelstrom, The Filter Bubble Blues can serve as an anchor.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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