Gareth Dickson, ‘Collected Recordings’
Gareth Dickson’s intimate bedroom dream guitar music remains as arresting as it was to me when I first heard it a handful of years ago. Since releasing The Dance, the Noon EP, and most recently, Quite A Way Away, Dickson has managed to capture some interest in the music community. 12k has responded by re-releasing his first full length, Collected Recordings (originally on Drifting Falling and now out of print), with the addition of previously unreleased tracks from the Collected Recordings-era, “Ping Pong” and “Cara.” From the drifting, gently washed ambient blanket of opener, “Fifth (the Impossibility of Death),” it is clear that this is not a typical solo acoustic guitar album.
It was 2009’s Collected Recordings that initially caught the attention of 12k label-head, Taylor Deupree. Deupree hunted Dickson down in his native Scotland to ask him to record the album that became 2012’s stunning Quite A Way Away. Upon its release, 12k described the album as combining the more experimental rhythmic elements from The Dance with the song structures of Collected Recordings. Collected Recordings in retrospect, reveals not only the central role of song-like phrasings on tracks like “Two Trains,” but through songs like “Agoa” manages to preview the wordless tides and headlong explorations of later releases.
A common, perhaps overly simplistic comparison is made between Dickson and Nick Drake. Dickson is more than willing to credit his influences like Drake and guitarist Burt Jansch, or the more ambient and electronic-leaning Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. And while both Dickson and Drake pull off impressive fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar and hold soaring, ethereal, upper-register vocal notes, I would argue the compositional similarities end there. Drake played brief, relaxed coffee shop Sunday morning tunes with quick chord changes — music for waking people. Dickson records more minimally hypnotic soundscapes. ‘Mellow’ or ‘tranquil’ are incomplete descriptors. Dickson’s music creeps into some deeper unconsciousness or otherworldly space. His music begs not to be heard with cream and sugar, but in some kind of waking dream.
At times, Grouper may be an appropriate comparison, but Dickson’s surreal-scapes bring more warmth than Liz Harris’ chilly dives into abyssal, murky bays. Peter Broderick (and particularly his collaboration with Nils Frahm on Oliveray) might be another contemporary who paints the kind of unhurried, delicate melodies and moods, but Dickson sidesteps the vocal directness and preciousness often present in Broderick’s work.
One warm and particularly aching episode on the record comes with the vulnerable, “If I.” Closely mic’d, fragile vocals pair with a drop-dead gorgeous, but simple acoustic guitar progression. “If I could see you in death, I’d die tomorrow,” Dickson dreams in prolonged, pained syllables. This soothing, Dickson version of some kind of ethereal love song is heart-wrenching.
This is no normal pop record, even if the track sequence suggests that this is a collection of songs. And indeed, there are memorable (even ‘standout’) moments, such as the harp-like, mesmerizing plucking surge on “Technology” or the delicate drone of “Fifth (the Impossibility of Death).” But overall, the most compelling reason to listen to Collected Recordings is not for uncovering killer singles but experiencing the overwhelming atmosphere.
Listeners can hear Dickson occasionally lick his lips, a gentle chair rocking sound in the background here and there, and the dynamic variation of volume levels when guitars fling notes about or insistently resonate. Dickson’s fingerpicked guitar work is dense, as bass notes steadily counter the ringing flares of high-necked notes. Tracks ease into the next. Song structures collapse into lengthy, exploratory variations on a mood, such as “Harmonics” or the reserved “Trip in a Blanik.” The experience of listening shifts from grounded realism into one of soulful centered-ness and abstract awareness. Collected Recordings deeply entrances.
The previously unreleased songs, “Ping Pong” and “Cara,” match the tone, quality, and production of the companion songs and glide right into the track-listing, extending the album length from around fifty minutes to fifty-eight. I do not think the sequencing of the record plays a critically relevant role. Each of the 13 songs on here drips so heavily with this blurry, peaceful atmosphere, that the inclusion of “Ping Pong” and “Cara” stretches the most pleasant daydream to a longer experience, which is only a good thing.
If there is one major difference between the sound of Collected Recordings and later Dickson work, it would be space. The songs’ lingering pace and album’s production render it the most unassuming and dreamlike of Dickson’s work. The new Dickson is splendid but Collected Recordings will endure as an absolutely blissful destination worth revisiting.