Don Dixon has been a favorite of mine as long as I can remember. I first discovered him after he stepped out from behind his producer’s chair with R.E.M. and Tommy Keene to cut an album of his own, and every release since has been a gleeful pleasure. I love his sandpaper vocals and knack for melody; “Praying Mantis”, “Southside Girl” and “Your Sister Told Me” are just some of the tunes that became a staple of my mixtapes during the ’80s. And every release since then has been a treasure.
He continued to engineer and produce a who’s who of jangle-pop songwriters and bands, quickly becoming the go-to guy (along with Mitch Easter) for artists like Marshall Crenshaw, Guadalcanal Diary and Matthew Sweet. And his partnership with wife Marti Jones not only elevated her albums to a greater height but their live collaborations (i.e. Chi-Town Budget Show) were magic. But somewhere along the late ’90s, with grunge and hip-hop and teenybop-pop milking what was left of radio, he drifted out of the limelight.
When he “came back” a few years later on Gadfly Records with Invisible Man, I was thrilled. He’s recorded sporadically snce then (his latest releases are available digitally) and continues to be a favorite. Those of you unfamiliar with him are in for a treat (check out his early band Arrogance as well!). Here’s what I penned about Invisible Man for Consumable Online back in 2002…
Invisible Man would be a good nickname for someone whose recording career seemed to slam on the brakes in 1995, but Don Dixon’s production and session work for some of music’s brighter lights has kept him very busy. And it’s not like radio is screaming for a literate, funny writer with a knack for hooks and a raspy but soulful voice. The Invisible Man certainly won’t qualify him for stadium tour status, but it’s a solid collection of songs presented through the guise of a song cycle, albeit a scattered one. Usually thematic pieces are presented in order; but Dixon’s life observations are ordered more by musical structure. What do you want from a producer?
The first three songs are presented from the viewpoint of a man in the prime of his life, and the music is appropriately confident and upbeat. “Invisible & Free” (which you will think is called “Kara” until you look at the track list) is an upbeat song that plays with the lyrics effectively, a typical Dixon maneuver. “Do So Well” is probably the closest to his prior solo work — soulful Southern rock and R&B — while the lively “Tax The Churches” could best be described as Memphis surf music, a kissing cousin to “Praying Mantis.” But two songs later, the stark and frail “All I Wanted” is narrated by an 85 year old man recounting a life of wasted opportunity. The vocal is a drop dead Elvis Costello intonation as a single, rhythmic acoustic guitar ticks away what little time remains.
“Digging A Grave” and “Then I Woke Up” are sung as the ruminations of a man in late middle age, and despite the characters’ mortality questions, are also strong musically. The oddest piece, “High Night For The Tide,” juxtaposes island rhythms and a sound not unlike Mike Oldfield‘s Tubular Bells. The somber island percussion reappears on the closing song “Why Do Children Have To Die?,” whose placement on the record is as odd as its title. I know Dixon is not going for a hit record here, but I’m not sure that’s the taste he wanted to leave in my ear as I depart, either.
Dixon fans may dive into this redemptive opera wholeheartedly, or they may opt to dip in only for the songs that tickle their fancy. If anyone on Americana or (gasp!) pop radio ever hears these tunes, they’ll be one at a time, so buying into the concept won’t be as critical. And that’s vintage Dixon — putting his wares out on that table and letting you find the gems for yourself. Welcome back!
The Gadfly Records website
Don Dixon’s wonderful catalogue here
Visit Don Dixon online here.
(And don’t forget Marti Jones!)