Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brad Kopplin
Should we think about flames because Dawn Landes eggs us on to or should we think about the ways that we could retard those flames, to make nice with them because she more insistently eggs us on to do that? These are questions that don't answer themselves and yet there's nothing that can so confidently claim to be supremely fire proofed. Brick homes and businesses find their own ways to burn down to the ground and eyeglasses and contact lenses melt to the retinas in extreme heat.
A good coating of black burn covers everything that those fires touch, yanking all life from the carriers until they are shadows of the orangeness and what they previously were. Landes, the Southern girl born in bourbon country, who now makes a home in New York City, alternates between the ferocity of hot streaks of fire and the passive, sleeping dog version of the stuff on her latest full-length record. It's an album that approaches subjects that get a lot of common face time and others that don't so much. She sometimes sounds like an idiosyncratic Natalie Merchant, playing around in the wildness with some of the jangly and crazier sounds that Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs were playing with back when they were working on Wowee Zowee and Slanted and Enchanted.
It's not a standard comparison, to be sure, and Landes takes us into those odd places where in one instance we're thinking about those "million tigers sleeping on their sides" in "Goodnight Lover" and we're not able to stop ourselves from imagining that those tigers aren't going to sleep forever and when we're cocksuredly placing our relaxed heads into their mouths ajar, there's still a 50-percent chance that those tigers are going to catch a fire of their own and snap down on us. They're bound to wake up restless and we'll be the sitting ducks they were hoping for, and immediately they'll be figuring out ways to best BBQ us up for dinner. People are restless and never fireproof. It's not how we're made. Landes didn't intend for her songs to make me think about tigers committing a sloppy kill and then getting culinary with their work, but it bears remembering that there is a remarkably sharp converse to no fire. Without a fire there is complete cold and with one, it's as hot as it gets. Toning down a fire is hard to do and teaching it to be picky in what it decides to eat through is just as difficult.
Landes is soft in her approach, ever the song bird, and it's still very plain to hear that there's something out there lurking around the corners - outside the light and the comfort - waiting to get at you, to light you up, to stimulate you in ways that happen rarely. It could be that you need to get out of there or you need to readjust to a new situation - those teeth, that torch, the one you loved suddenly being the one you no longer love or the one who no longer loves you. Often in her songs, Landes comes across as that observer of the pretty flame that just goes on and on diligently until it's too tired to stand anymore or it's killed off mid-sentence. She makes these feelings of an old woman walking through a corridor of her home late at night with an oil lantern in one hand like a tea cup and the other hand cupping the side of the light. It cuts through the dark and the only sounds that are heard are the shuffling of fabric of the flowing night gown. This is where we're thinking here about her gorgeous French cover, dedicated to her count of a drummer. Then she's the person squirting a crinkly container of lighter fluid onto a contained fire to make it rabid, talking about being the strange kids acting in a play, hoping they don't let it get boring, not on their watch. Then she's leaning over the night stand and blowing out the whimpering candle and we think about her three sides from the beginning again - none of them fireproof.