Dixon’s recollections of his producing career were the topic of last week’s Hooks ’N’ You column, and he reflected on some of his best-remembered songs two weeks ago in that same space. We’ve got more Dixon- (and Jones-) related tricks up our sleeve in the coming weeks here at Popdose; in the meantime, here is an overview of his recordings, with commentary from the man himself.
The word “seminal” gets tossed around way too frequently in rock-crit circles, but here goes: In 1969-70, as a student at the University of North Carolina, Dixon co-founded a band called Arrogance that played a seminal role in the growth of the music scene around the state’s “triangle” area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill). Arrogance released five LPs over the next decade, and nearly made the big time despite the usual assortment of personnel changes and label difficulties. Their best chance came with a signing to Curb/Warner Bros. and the release of an album titled Suddenly in 1980; unfortunately, the album stiffed, and within a couple years Arrogance was no more. (Tracks from the band’s records can be downloaded from efolkmusic.org.)
While still with the band, Dixon wrote several songs that would become staples of his early solo career – including the debut single that remains his most popular hit, “Praying Mantis.” During the three years after he went solo, he holed up in several recording studios (including Mitch Easter’s Drive-In) to lay down demos of his best songs. Eventually – his reputation having spiked with the general acclaim for R.E.M.’s first two albums, which he co-produced with Easter – he was signed to Demon Records and “Praying Mantis” (recorded with Arrogance, but released as a solo track) became a college-radio fave. Most of the Girls… followed in 1985, first in England and then in the U.S.; it’s primarily a DIY collection of those early demos, but it was also a blueprint for the rollicking pop-rock that would characterize his more … intentional albums to come. “I cut songs up into tiny pieces, threw them onto the floor and swept them up, shoved them into an envelope, and sent them to my publisher. That’s what that record is,” Dixon says – but no fan of his later work would be so dismissive of prime cuts like “Girls L.T.D.” (download) and “Renaissance Eyes” (download).
Now signed to Enigma/Restless, Dixon here received “my first opportunity to make a solo record from start to finish, and control the songwriting curve of the record.” The result was a minor classic, an amalgam of Big Star-style power pop and latter-day “beach music.” (If for some reason you don’t recognize that slightly dated, Carolinas-centric term, go here for an explanation.) The rave-up “Your Sister Told Me” was a holdover from the Arrogance era, while “Swallowing Pride” (download) brought out the soul in Dixon’s gruff voice. Both of those songs became staples of his live act, along with “Borrowed Time,” “Heart in a Box” and “Cat Out of the Bag.” Elsewhere, he rocked up the jazzy “Cool,” from West Side Story, and channeled Elvis Costello a bit on “February Ingenue” (download). The lighthearted Romeo at Juilliard showcases Dixon at the height of his pop-songwriting powers, and the heightened visibility it brought helped him build upon the fan base he had earned with “Praying Mantis.”
By the time Dixon played the gig at the Chicago’s Park West nightclub that was documented for a radio broadcast and this budget-priced CD, his life and career had become intertwined with that of Jones. He had met her while producing her debut solo album, Unsophisticated Time, and soon enough they had formed a partnership that would produce much great music – not to mention some of the most joyous concert experiences of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Chi-Town Budget Show, on which Dixon and Jones are backed by the North Carolina band the Woods, exemplifies the high spirits that reigned during those shows; don’t miss Marti’s loving/ridiculing John Denver reference that concludes their rendition here of “Heart in a Box” (download). Of this particular gig, Dixon says, “It came at a great time, when I was getting a lot of airplay on [Chicago alt-rock station] WXRT. We had a wonderful crowd, and everybody knew the songs.” (Watch Popdose in the weeks to come for much more about those co-headlining tours.)
No doubt jazzed by the critical response to Romeo at Juilliard and encouraged “to make a record that Enigma might actually be able to sell to someone beyond the fans I already had,” Dixon kept the mood light and the hooks flowing (for the most part) on his second studio album, even recruiting the Uptown Horns to crank up an old-school groove. EEE “was my horn record,” he says now. “I tried to invent a new kind of soul music on that record.” To that end, his originals “Oh Cheap Chatter” (download) and “I Can Hear the River” fit neatly alongside covers of James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street” and Brenton Wood’s beach-music staple “Gimme Little Sign” (presented here as a sweet duet with Jones). Dixon also recorded John Hiatt’s “Love Gets Strange” (download), and included his version of the brilliant song he had penned with Marshall Crenshaw for the Mary Jean and 9 Others album, “Calling Out for Love (at Crying Time).” He even found room for a bizarre bit of audio collage, “EEE/T.O.T.TV.” A bit too clever for its own good, and therefore not quite the album Romeo had been – and not quite the popular breakthrough Dixon or Enigma were looking for – EEE nevertheless provided plenty of welcome additions to the live act.
Following extensive, back-to-back tours behind Dixon’s EEE and Jones’ Any Kind of Lie albums, the couple retreated into semi-retirement to begin raising a family. While their recording careers were on hiatus Enigma released a Dixon best-of, If I’m a Ham, Well You’re a Sausage, that includes his Heathers contribution “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It).” (Go here for a discussion of the CD and a download of that track.) By the time he returned with Romantic Depressive, on the Sugar Hill label, his perspective had matured and his themes had darkened a bit – exemplified by the inclusion of a stark recollection of Vietnam’s impact on college students, “Lottery of Lives.” For the most part, Dixon still was concerned with matters of the heart; he calls the album “a record about being unable to comprehend your relationships with any girl, and the general incomprehensibility of heterosexual relationships.” Before you run screaming in another direction, check out the soulful groove of “Angel Angel” (download), the gorgeous melody of “Giving Up the Ghost” (download) or the jazzed-up “Everytime I Think of Home.”
Having come off a six-year break to release Romantic Depressive, Dixon proceeded to wait another five years before following it – though 1996 would see the release, also on Sugar Hill, of the score from King Mackerel & the Blues Are Running, a musical show Dixon had created during the mid-’80s with fellow Carolinians Bland Simpson (of the Red Clay Ramblers) and Jim Wann. Dixon & Co. have performed the show, a tribute to life in the coastal Carolinas, dozens of times over the past two decades.
Dixon takes on middle age – and the concept album – with this collection of songs written from a variety of perspectives. Having obviously put a great deal of thought and care into conceiving the record, he clearly wanted his intentions understood; the extensive liner notes go so far as to lay out the particular age of each song’s narrator. “It’s about mortality,” he says now, “and not knowing exactly where you fit in the cosmos.” After setting that tone of detachment with the album opener “Invisible and Free,” Dixon surveys the voices in his own head, ranging from an 18-year-old’s puppy-love obsession on “Decline and Fall” to an 85-year-old’s rant about how life couldn’t possibly have met his ridiculously high expectations (“All I Wanted”). These descriptions might suggest a downbeat affair, but Dixon leavens the seriousness with an eclectic mix of tempos and instrumental quirks, such as the fuzz guitar on “Digging a Grave” (download) and the percussion on “High Night for the Tide” (download) – a duet with Jones that is like nothing Dixon had recorded before. Released on Gadfly, a tiny independent label based in Vermont, The Invisible Man is far from Dixon’s most accessible album; that’s just as well, since the project seems to have been aimed at a few intense listeners rather than the browsing multitudes.
So, you put out an album steeped in ruminations about mortality, and then the next year … you have a heart attack! And emergency bypass surgery! Actually, the new millennium had brought some rather momentous events even before the onset of Dixon’s health problems. He had pulled Arrogance back together for a pair of reunion shows (which the band has since parlayed into a semi-regular string of gigs, most recently this past September). He also had remixed Arrogance’s five albums and re-issued them on CD (in very limited quantities), and had begun to work with his once and future bandmates to organize a release of their never-released final album, 5’11”. While immersed in these archival matters – indeed, Dixon has released these projects under the auspices of his own Dixon Archival label – he decided to release a second collection of odds and ends from his solo career.
To hear Dixon describe it, Note Pad #38 is a bookend to the earlier Most of the Girls Like to Dance. “I cut up a bunch of tape, threw it on the floor, swept it up, put it into an envelope, and sent it to the pressing plant,” he says (in a familiar way) of this collection, which gathers songs from throughout his career that hadn’t fit on other albums. He includes “fast” and “slow” (download) versions of “(If I Could) Walk Away,” a song he had given to Jones 15 years earlier for Unsophisticated Time. “Test” is a close cousin of the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” as Dixon advises his teenage daughter to “Pick your boyfriend with precision, like you’d choose a truck or van/Put your ear up to the engine, test out everything you can.” Other highlights include the funky “Alone with the Moon” and “Wise Up” (download), which spotlights Dixon’s musicianship on the bass as well as a soul-tinged falsetto vocal.
Hooks ‘N’ You author Will Harris writes: Dixon’s second concept album sets each of its 10 songs in the various rooms of a house – as given away by titles including “Sunlit Room,” “Roommate,” “Kitchen,” “Secret Room,” and “Man on the Hall.” Dixon calls it “an exploration of how specific environments affect one’s psychological balance.” Opener “In Darkness Found” (download) begins, “Well, there’s no sparkle in your eyes/There’s something queer about this room/Everybody knows you passed away too soon,” setting the tone for a decidedly melancholy track; only when Dixon momentarily borrows the melody from “Glory Hallelujah” does the song briefly turn upbeat. In fact, it really isn’t until “Roommate” (download) – the album’s fourth track – that Dixon surges into the propulsive pop mode in which he’s a master. As Dixon had begun communicating when the century was new, when he began hovering in a more despondent flight pattern on The Invisible Man, everyone grows up and every one of us dies, sometimes before his time. He had discovered that life’s events can’t always be summed up within three minutes of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/repeat to fade … but that’s what age brings: a more realistic view of life and a loss of naivetÃ©.
Setting out to record a power-trio album with longtime touring cohorts Jamie Hoover and Jim Brock – and christening the triumvirate the Jump Rabbits – Dixon entered Hoover’s home studio with one song in hand (Willie Dixon’s “300 Pounds of Joy”) and emerged last spring with The Nu-Look. Recording quickly, live in the studio with no overdubs, Dixon gathered songs by friends and colleagues including Jones, Parthenon Huxley and former dB Peter Holsapple. The trio sizzles on Holsapple’s classic “Amplifier” (download), and smolders on “The Night That Otis Died” (download) , a song Dixon co-wrote with his King Mackerel colleague Bland Simpson. In the wake of the very-serious Entire Combustible World, Dixon approached The Nu-Look as a lark, an opportunity to make some fun music in a new format with old friends – and that’s precisely how the album sounds.
Almost simultaneously with The Nu-Look, Dixon and Jones released their first official album as a duo – a lovely set for parents and children called Lucky Stars: New Lullabies for Old Souls. It’s hard to imagine two more diverse albums coming from one artist in the same year, much less the same season. But that’s Don Dixon for you. Who knows what he’ll come up with next … or how long it will take him to get around to it?