We seem to live in an age where style seems far more important than substance, at least in the music world anyway. Artists are often more interested in what the studio can do to enhance their music, what gimmicks and gizmos, tricks and traps they can add to their songs to make them stand out. Or worse, they just spend all their time worrying about their complicated hairstyle, publicity shots or sponsorship deals.
Thankfully there are artists such as Willy Dunn who still remember what is important. Willy knows that before you get to worry about any of those peripheral things you have to have some fundamentals in place. You need to be saying something with your music, you need to have a better reason for making music than to stroke your own ego. More than anything, you have to have the songs.
Willy has the songs. They are simple, unadorned, willfully raw, fantastically ragged, unpolished and honest. Some of you perhaps think that such adjectives might seem a little harsh but I write them in the best sense of their meaning. They say that if you strip any song back to its basics, par it down so that it can be performed with just a voice and a guitar and it still works, then you have a good song. Willy Dunn doesn’t have to bother with any editing or stripping back, he starts out with both feet planted firmly in that understated place.
And even within his own sparse world, he manages to take his simple building blocks and move them around sufficiently so that he creates plenty of variation on this, his debut album. Ocean Tide, which kicks things off is a simple, heartfelt, rhythmic strum and World of Change is buoyant without being busy, melodic but minimal.
By the time you get to Distant Echo, he starts branching out, this being a hypnotic, circular and staccato instrumental. The Unforgiven feels like the soundtrack to a Sergio Leone western, sinister and twisted, shimmering and chiming and No One Else wanders into some dark folk territory.
The album ends with an almost classical instrumental, one which soothes and sweetens, which is filled with serenity and soulfulness…Nature’s Serenade indeed.
Yes, as an album it is a bit rough around the edges, often feeling more like sketches of songs or demos before they are lifted by the recording process. But that is to miss the point. Surely music is much less about the final polish than it is the initial intent, about what lies at their heart rather than what sparkles on the surface. That’s how I see things anyway.
In fact, perhaps the best thing about Acoustic Rivers is that it reminds us what is important in music. I’m sure given time and budget, Willy Dunn will one day produce an album worthy of the honesty and soul which you can clearly feel within his songs and when that time comes, I know he will be smart enough not to lose that innocence and truthfulness which make his songs so….it may sound like a cliche but there is no better word for it…real!