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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1645

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Gabe Dixon: One Spark
by George Graham

(Fantasy 32584 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/22/2011)

Bands have varying degrees of shared responsibilities among members. Some groups are very much a cooperative, with writing duties and creative input distributed fairly equally. Other groups are dominated by a single person. So when solo albums by group members appear, the results are variable. A good number of performers turn out to need their bandmates to generate music at the level of the band. Others, especially those who had were already in the position of writing most of the material for the group, can move into so-called solo albums with ease.

This week we have a new recording by a very good singer-songwriter-keyboardist who is out with a solo album that's a bigger production than his band recordings. It's Gabe Dixon, whose new album minus the Gabe Dixon Band, is called One Spark.

Gabe Dixon formed his band in college at the University of Miami with a couple of roommates. They started out playing jazz-rock fusion and were something of a jam band. Dixon relocated to New York and soon began to attract a fair amount of attention, doing work as a keyboard-playing side man. One of the people who were impressed by Dixon was Paul McCartney, who hired him to play on most of the tracks on McCartney's 2001 CD Driving Rain. Dixon was invited to tour worldwide with McCartney, but Dixon declined, choosing to concentrate on his own band and music. The Gabe Dixon Band released their first full-length recording, On a Rolling Ball in 2002, which was a first-rate project that yielded several songs that found their way into the soundtracks of TV shows. After a live album in 2005, Dixon moved to Nashville, where he had done some studio work with, among others, Alison Krauss. In 2008, the Gabe Dixon Band released an eponymous album that we featured on this series and was marked by tasteful songwriting and relatively scaled back arrangements, relying mostly on the piano, bass and drum configuration. One of the songs again found its way into other popular media. Find My Way from the eponymous album was included in the film The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock.

After the end of a tour, and with Dixon becoming a father, he figured that he wanted to try something outside his comfort zone. Taking care of the baby at irregular hours led him decide he wanted to "jump into something unfamiliar and uncomfortable." He worked with producer Marshall Altman, who has worked with Matt Nathanson, among others. Altman had sought out Dixon, after becoming a big fan.

After agreeing to work together, one of the first things they did was to travel to London for both composing and recording. Dixon often writes jointly with others. And four of the twelve tracks came out of the London trip. The rest were recorded in Los Angeles, another location where Dixon had not previously done an album. Among the collaborators in London were James Walsh of the band Starsailor, and Iain Archer of the group Snow Patrol. Dixon's collaborators in the US included Tia Sillers, with whom he has recorded before.

While the Gabe Dixon Band was a tight unit, whose recordings did not have a lot of obvious overdubbing, this is more of a straight pop production, with lots of guitars sounds, rather than being dominated by Dixon's acoustic piano. The songs for the most part are quite good, and Dixon's high tenor vocal is quite appealing, but this is more of a mainstream pop recording than his previous with the band, and for me not as musically interesting. There are more pop cliches than were on the Gabe Dixon Band CDs. Still, it's a generally tasteful, and intelligent pop sound.

The CD opens with one of its strong, appealing songs, Strike. While the piano is in there, it's not the center of the sound as was the case in Dixon's previous recordings. The writing is quite good and the rocky beat is hard to resist. <<>>

Dixon has recorded a number of more introspective songs on earlier albums. Even the Rain qualifies for that description. It features bluegrass star Alison Krauss, for whom Dixon did some studio work, on the backing vocals. <<>>

Gabe Dixon can write some fairly musically sophisticated songs and has previously. The new CD has a song that puts that musical skill to work toward creating one of those killer pop songs that is likely to stick in your head. The tune is called My Favorite, and its sunny lyrics combine with the infectious tune to make a track that is the epitome of good pop songcraft. <<>>

A bit more like Dixon's previous recordings, with the more scaled-back, piano-oriented instrumentation, is Burn for You. It's a rather plaintive-sounding song of perhaps unrequited love. <<>>

A composition with rather the opposite lyrical direction comes on Release Me. It's one where the production gets a bit heavy on the commercial side with a lot of sonic cliches. <<>>

A track that has a lot going for it is called Running on Fumes. It's clever lyrically and had some interesting musical ideas with its somewhat retro-sounding backing. <<>>

I Can See You Shine is another of those songs where the production seems a bit more aimed toward the market than enhancing the song. There's a banjo that gives it a bit of interest, but otherwise, it's pretty mainstream commercial. <<>>

The CD ends with one another of its nice ballads. Lucky to Be Lost, combines clever lyrics with good writing and more scaled-back production. <<>>

Gabe Dixon's new CD One Spark is being promoted as his first solo album apart from the Gabe Dixon Band, and ironically, it's a much bigger production in sound. It partially moves away from Dixon's signature piano-oriented sound to a more mainstream pop, more guitar-textured direction. The access to that extra stuff can make for artistic flexibility, and this recording is rather more varied than the Gabe Dixon Band albums. However, much of the time, the added production elements don't help the songs a lot, and can sometimes detract from Dixon's own distinctive sound, adding some of the pop cliches that Dixon's previous music largely avoided. Still, it's intelligent, attractive music, nicely performed, with material that is head-and-shoulders above most commercial pop.

Our grade for audio quality is a "B." It's generally well-mixed and Dixon's vocals have a pleasing sound. But it's heavily compressed, with a loud in-your-face sound that is much less pleasant to listen to that Dixon's previous CDs.

Gabe Dixon is a talented singer-songwriter-pianist who has created a batch of worthwhile songs on his new recording. Perhaps the more mainstream pop-oriented direction will help to attract wider casual audiences, especially among those whose exposure to him previously was through soundtracks that used some of his earlier songs. But in terms of the overall quality of the CD, One Spark is not as bright a light as his previous recordings with the Gabe Dixon Band.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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