So last month saw the release of “You Are An Island”, a new album from Dustin Bentall & The Smokes. Regular readers will know that DB is one of my favorite Canadian musicians. So I have been anxiously awaiting a new album for sometime. Last fall Dustin released an EP entitled “Orion” which I loved. I actually got my hands on this record from Dustin a week before the release when I saw him at The Dakota Tavern in Toronto.
I had some expectations or preconceived notions prior to listening to this album. Firstly, I knew there would be a couple tracks from the “Orion” EP that would be on the album as Dustin had told me as much a few months back. OK. Secondly, we would finally get a studio recording of the rocker DB has been playing live for a year now, “Shine”. Awesome because I love that tune. And thirdly, from the pre-release press I had read this album was going to be a bit of a departure from his traditional rootsy past and be more rock and roll. I’m okay with that too.
So let me walk you through the album as I listened to it before I give you my judgement based on the above assumptions. The album starts with “Every Chord That Rings” which is by far my favorite track on the album. It is catchy, especially Dustin & Kendel’s vocals during the chorus. Speaking of Kendel Carson, her fiddle adds some great musical colour to the song without it sounding too rootsy. The next track, “Just Be My Friend”, I heard for the first time at the Dakota show is equally as catchy. It has a sort of 60’s kind of feel to it. The drums and bass give it a snappy driving beat that you can’t help bobbing your head too. “Shine” is the next song on the album and one that I’ve loved since first hearing it live a year ago. While the lyrics are pretty simplistic (“Take me to a bar, I wanna get drunk, wanna get fucked up”) it is a high energy song that you find yourself singing all day. I like when Dustin goes electric which I wish he would do more often. This tune is also a fiddle workout for Kendel. I think a lot of the pre-release buzz about the album was based on “Shine” which is the lead single. It’s good but not indicative of the entire album. “Shine” is much more rock and roll than DB’s past work but the rest of the album falls in between the past roots-rock and the promise of “Shine”. The highlight of the album is “Dreaming Of A Nightmare”. What a radical departure. My instant reaction is that it sounds like it could easily of have fit right into the b-side of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album. It has this dark dreamy 60’s vibe to it and the vocals sound somewhat Mike Love-ish/Bryan Wilson-y. Everything about this track is brilliant, lyrics, vocals, instrumentation. The title track follows. I have always loved this song since I felt it was by far the standout of the EP. It paints a pretty imaginative picture. What I love most is the chorus which has Dustin prominently doing some “oooo’s” with Kendel distantly singing the tag line. This tune is unchanged from the “Orion” EP thankfully. “Shalala” follows and carries the same sort of 60’s rock and roll feel. “Oxford Street” (or a demo thereof) was on the EP last fall and a different incarnation makes its appearance on this album. The new studio version has some nice twangy Telecaster work but I find the acoustic guitar throughout is kind of lost in the mix. This tune is the rootsy Dustin we all know. The album closes with “Pretty Good Life” with Kendel & Dustin’s vocal harmonies sounding reminiscent of that 60’s sound.
So what are my thoughts on the album as a whole? I like it a lot. But there is more to it than that. Getting back to my preconceived expectations, I didn’t feel that this album was the big departure from DB’s previous work that it was made out to be. Yes it certainly was an evolution from “Six Shooter” in that there was more of a 60’s rock and roll feel to a lot of the songs and less of the Canadiana / roots-rock of his past work. Was it the “rock” album that I had read it was going to be? No. “Shine” is great but not really indicative of the rest of the disc. How did I feel about a couple “Orion” tracks being on the new album? I do not have a problem with it but it leads into one of my only complaints; the album is not long enough. There are only eight songs on YAAI, two of which we have already heard on “Orion” (even though one was a demo). So that means there is only six new songs. The total running time of all eight tracks, which clocks in around 24 minutes is, for me, too short. I may be a dying breed that listens to an album start to finish. Maybe in this itunes generation 24 minutes is long enough for an album. With the two “Orion” songs and the short running length, YAAI feels to me like an EP. What I would have loved to see is rather than release the EP last fall and the album now, if the two had been combined it would have made a really great album. I think the songs would have worked together. They were primarily written and recorded around the same time with the same producer (Ryan Dahle). Add “Orion”, “Souvenirs” and “The Ballad of Billy Cowsill” to the YAAI track list and then you’ve got a really solid, cohesive album. I’ve heard the demo of “Good Money”. A studio version of that would have also fit in really well and mixed up the tempo of the album is a really pleasing way.
So aside from my feeling that the album was a little short, my only other criticism is that the packaging left something to be desired. I like CD packages and liner notes and that hold in your hands touchy stuff. Dustin did a much better job on packaging “Six Shooter” himself than Aporia did on YAAI. It is too thin (like an EP) and doesn’t stand out on a CD shelf. The artwork and design is fine but a booklet with lyrics and liner notes is very much missing.
What the bottom line you ask because I’ve rambled on quite a bit? I really really like “You Are An Island”. Dustin is evolving as a song writer and musician. Ryan Dahle (I assume) has aided greatly in the arrangements on this record. The addition of Kendel Carson to the entire album (and not just the one track on the “Six Shooter” album) makes a huge impact. Her presence on YAAI is as important as Luke Doucet’s was on “Six Shooter”.
So go buy the album and the “Orion” EP as well. Listen to them both as they really are part one and two. In the meantime, check out the video for the title track “You Are An Island”.