Mike Dumovich – Acres
I’ve been writing this review in my head for weeks – listening to Acres, trying to think analytically and form coherent, descriptive thoughts, then getting sucked into the sonic world Mike Dumovich creates, critical thought completely swept away by the third or fourth track, and then blinking dazedly as the silence after “Acumen” clues me in to the fact that the album is over. It’s never going to get any easier, so I guess I should just start.
Mike Dumovich is, put simply, a musician’s musician and a songwriter’s songwriter. Since the first time I saw him perform several years ago (I just checked, eight years ago) , playing a solo set at the Tractor with Eyvind Kang backing him up on the viola, he has been one of my favorite singers and songwriters, local or otherwise. Mike is not, for some reason probably to do with the general unfairness of the cosmos, a musician of great renown. But if you go to one of his shows and look around at the people in the audience and on stage, you will most likely see some of our town’s finest and most thoughtful musicians. People who care about the craft of writing and performing music, who are lucky enough to hear Mike’s music, know very quickly that they are in the presence of a unique talent with a singular voice. I could have written any of the above before hearing Acres – it would have been as true then as it is now – but it truly came to me as I stood at the CD release show, hearing these songs for the first time, and looked around the room and the stage and saw all of these musicians I so greatly respect, united with me in our appreciation of Mike Dumovich.
Suffice it to say that Mike doesn’t tend to write pop songs. Some of the songs on Acres don’t have choruses, and some of the choruses he does write are little more than breaths or tags between verses. Some songs, such as “Counting,” are completely through-composed, more acoustic chamber pieces with voice than structured songs as we normally conceive of them in our verse-chorus-verse world.
None of this is to say that Mike Dumovich doesn’t have a keen sense of melody. After you’ve heard any of these songs once they will stick with you, sounding instantly familiar the second time. (I remember seeking out Mike’s music after that first show at the Tractor, then finding an MP3 of “Warm Territories” and recognizing it with perfect clarity, playing it over and over like an answering machine message from a new crush.) By the third listen you’re singing along, and whether it’s to a verse, chorus, coda, or viola line doesn’t matter; this music sticks with you even as it slips through your fingers, defying explanation and demanding another listen.
Most of the songs on Acres are built around Mike’s finger-picked acoustic guitar and warm baritone voice, both of which he has masterful dynamic control of. There is always a push and pull of beauty and ugliness, harmony and discord in these songs – whether in the lyrics, the music or both. In the end beauty wins out – if I had to pick one word to describe this album and Mike’s music in general, “beautiful” would do it – not as some sleek, platonic ideal, but as a living, breathing, artistic creation containing rough edges and dark corners.
Dumovich is accompanied on Acres by some of those excellent musicians I referred to earlier. Eyvind Kang, Bill Patton (pedal steel), Dave Abramson (drums), Jonas Haskins (bass), Anna-Lynne Williams and Sam Watts (backing vocals), and even an appearance from local guitar legend Bill Frisell help to flesh out and enrich the source material. The production by Johnny Goss and mixing/mastering by Mel Dettmer bring the perfect balance of experimentation and restraint to the music, letting the songs speak for themselves when that’s all that’s needed. On “Are You Sith?” (probably the most beautiful Star Wars-referencing song ever written), all we need is Mike’s acoustic guitar and voice and a light touch from Eyvind Kang’s viola.
On other songs, the production plays a stronger role. “White Out” incorporates layered guitars, drums, keys, and strings, building a simple minor drone to a screaming, feedback-laden catharsis before releasing the tension and collapsing in upon itself.
Acres is Mike Dumovich’s third album. They’re all essential listening, as far as I’m concerned, but his gift for songwriting, arranging, and performing his singular music just keeps getting stronger, making this the most essential yet. He’s playing next Friday at the Josephine, and in general seems to be playing out a bit more than usual. Go see him, and try to stop yourself from buying a CD or three while you’re there.