Dave Dobbyn

The Islander

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The follow-up to 1994's brooding and dark Twist album by one of New Zealand rock's most heralded songsmiths is the album he always threatened to make. Dave Dobbyn has a way with words and atmosphere that puts him in the class of great antipodean songwriters Neil Finn (who collaborates here with some exquisite guitar playing and mixed instrumentation), Graeme Downes, and Ed Kuepper. There are no mainstream hits -- no "Slice of Heaven" or "Language" -- here, but instead a fragility and personality that are the signature of some of the best singer/songwriter albums. Hence, Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Elvis Costello's Blood & Chocolate, and Bob Mould's Workbook are all good points of reference, and even echoes of Randy Newman and Neil Young crop up on a few occasions, through they are all hard to pin down exactly. The Islander is a sort of distillation of qualities that only an artist of exceptional craftsmanship can achieve without once sounding postmodern. That said, the album sounds instantly familiar and warm, beginning with the opening "Waiting," a lyrical study of desire that sets the tone for the whole album. The track exposes a hint of the glam influences of his '70s pub rock days in the Dudes and maps a lifetime of influences from the Beatles through to indie rock. "Be Set Free" swings with a Crazy Horse feel and "I Never Left You" -- the melancholic sister song to Twist's "Naked Flame" -- is simply exquisite and among the best he has ever penned. "Mobile Home" uses the quaint imagery of the heart as a kind of caravan -- one of the many delightful poetic twists on the album. The Islander is a milestone in a career of an extraordinary songwriting talent. While it may be apparent over the course of his career that Dobbyn's craft certainly took some dubious diversions into MOR territory, in his maturity Dobbyn has found his voice in the homespun, low-tech atmosphere where his songs carry a deeper emotional weight. Much like his collaborator Finn, he opted for a more casual recording situation away from the studio settings that have in the past stifled the direct, raw atmospheres where his songs shine. The album closes with gospel piano chords on "Hallelujah Song," an ironic Randy Newman-esque fanfare that creates a great mood to close an exceptional and stunning work.

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