Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Unknown Pleasures: Dakota Suite

Dakota Suite is not so much a band, more the brainchild of Chris Hooson, a social worker from England. He manages to hold down a full-time job while also producing some affecting music.

Their early singles were compiled on an album entitled Alone with Everybody. That title alone should give an indication of the music contained within, it's not the most cheerful. Hooson conveys resignation more than angst. It's been said before that his music is very informed by American Music Club and Red House Painters, and that is undeniably true of his 'singer-songwriter' material. This compilation is quite varied, with some singer-songwriter type material, slightly countrified rock, and some jazzy / classical instrumentals. All the songs are uniformly slow, some feature deep strums of an acoustic guitar, whilst others are piano-based. One of the finer piano-based songs is Autobiography, which is nicely underpinned by some cello.

Their first full album proper is, to my ears, somewhat disappointing. Entitled Songs for a Barbed Wire Fence, it presents a slab of grimness, though not in a good way. The vocal songs are punctuated with instrumentals, and the album was followed up with Dakota Suite's first instrumental album, Navigator's Yard, a series of chamber pieces strongly featuring piano. In other words, classical music. It's quite soothing and tranquil to listen to.

In 2000, they released Signal Hill, a major step forward. The album is back to mostly vocal songs, with some excellent mood-piece style instrumentals. Close Enough to Tears is a fragile, plaintive ballad, begun on acoustic guitar around Chris gently singing 'never let me go'. Other highlights include the wonderful pair of songs: Riverside, recorded beside a train station and consisting only of acoustic guitar and Chris repeating the phrase 'is it true, are you breaking up inside', he is then joined by some trumpets. It sounds awful but works wonderfully, then leads into Raining Somewhere, an instrumental played on electric guitars, somewhat reminescent of Red House Painters' Katy Song, it creates a lovely autumnal Sunday afternoon mood. It's the sound of loneliness. The album ends on an upbeat note, with When Skies Are Grey which Chris says is about football, specifically Everton.

They then released a mini-album, Morning Lake Forever, which was dominated by Chapel Rain, a lengthy piece with the refrain 'I must be evil' (another RHP reference?). The album also contained some experimental type pieces. Lesseps is almost completely electronic, a nice departure for them, incorporating some new sounds. Turk 1 is a propulsive (for them) instrumental with jazz overtones.

They then released another instrumental album, this time using an orchestra, The Way I Am Sick. This River Only Brings Poison, followed. This album featured contributions from ex-American Music Club members, Bruce Kaphan on steel guitar and Tim Mooney on drums. The album featured some of Chris' loveliest songs, the duet featuring a female vocalist (Laura Donohoe?) on How Safe We Must Seem being a particular high point. It's very chilled out and mellow.

A four-year silence followed. I had some email correspondence with Chris around this time, and he was disappointed with how This River was received and the whole process of releasing an album. He spoke about not releasing any more music. I was glad to hear then that he was releasing Waiting For The Dawn to Crawl Through and Take Your Life Away. The album is a mixture of singer-songwriter oriented songs and some instrumental pieces. It came with a free DVD, Wintersong, which was a documentary about the band, and contained some interesting observations from Chris and his life.

Which brings me to their latest album, The End of Trying. The title is so resigned, and this follows through to the music. It's an instrumental album for piano and cello where he collaborates with notable cellist David Darling. The album works well as a mood piece. It's hard to pick out individual tracks. I ordered mine directly from Chris.

Dakota Suite are not the first band in the world to play somewhat slow, sad moody music. But I think the jazz / classical influence gives them a fresh twist. Their distaste for live performance means they will probably remain underappreciated by most.

For more about the band, check out http://www.dakotasuite.com/