Toronto’s foremost experimental soundscaper also turns out to be a surprisingly tender country-soul crooner on an album divided between psych-soul workouts and solitary acoustic ruminations.
For over a decade now, Matthew “Doc” Dunn has served as the Canadian ambassador to the New Weird America, acting as a conduit between the DIY avant/improv enclaves in his native Toronto and the broader international freak scene. He’s helped organize local weekend festivals featuring the likes of Oneida, collaborated with psych-folk figureheads like MV & EE and Woods, and amassed a discography stacked with more CD-Rs than the clearance rack at your local Staples. He’s an artist who thrives in both communal free-for-alls and extreme seclusion, whether leading his 20-person “hillbilly raga” collective the Transcendental Rodeo or overseeing all the instrumentation on the meditative drone-jazz instrumentals that comprise his solo releases.
Two albums released this year exemplify Dunn’s penchant for both collaboration and isolation—yet rather than serve as a study in contrasts, the two records prove to be natural companion pieces. Earlier this year, we heard Dunn corral his current free-psych ensemble, the Cosmic Range, to become Meg Remy’s backing band on U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited, where their improvised sprawl got vacuum-sealed into taut disco-funk like a splatter of toothpaste getting sucked back into a shiny silver tube. But on his first solo effort in five years, Dunn proves he’s got some velvet for sale of his own. Like previous releases under his own name, Lightbourn finds Dunn in multi-tasking mode, handling everything from guitars to drums to vibraphone. But unlike his previous releases, it reveals Toronto’s foremost experimental soundscaper also to be the city’s most tender country-soul crooner.
Even if you weren’t aware of Dunn’s experimental-noise roots, Lightbourn counts as a late-summer stunner on its terms, thanks to its churchly warmth, beguiling nocturnal atmosphere, and disarming vulnerability. Like In a Poem Unlimited, the album revels in the sultry, soothing qualities of mid-’70s pop, but unlike Remy, Dunn is concerned less with the political than the spiritual: the precariousness of love, the humbling grandeur of nature, the fear of an uncertain future. Dunn sings in the honeyed, high-register voice of a Laurel Canyon folkie, but Lightbourn’s soft-focus patina (courtesy of Jennifer Castle producer Jeff McMurrich) tends to blur the edges of his words, lending the album’s familiar, golden-oldies forms an enigmatic aura.
Lightbourn is divided evenly between plush, psych-soul workouts and solitary acoustic ruminations, and the tracks that fall into the former camp are the most immediately alluring. On “Lovebeams (for T.B.),” Dunn hitches a plaintive, sepia-toned serenade to a frisky drum beat like the Band bound for the boudoir, while Remy and (occasional U.S. Girls backing vocalist) Isla Craig’s harmonies cast the song’s gritty groove in a heavenly glow. Dunn’s also fond of stretching out his rhythmic foundations until the carnal turns cosmic: With the fever-dream funk of “Mind of My Lover,” he initiates a holy communion of Astral Weeks and Maggot Brain, as he and Remy repeat the titular chorus line in a mantric trance while floating inside a lava lamp of Eddie Hazel guitar globules.
But Lightbourn’s acoustic reprieves are ultimately no less transfixing than its extended excursions, with Dunn’s exploratory ethos coming to the fore even in his more typical singer/songwriter turns. On the spectral lullaby “The Catching Wave,” each of Dunn’s existential lyrics is punctuated by a cluster of kosmische organ tones, like an early-’70s soft-rock station bleeding into a contemporaneous European pirate-radio broadcast. And on folk reveries like “Roads” and “Simple One,” he effectively unspools a single extended verse over his glistening fingerpicking, with the songs’ repeated melodic cadences transmogrifying into hypnotic textures unto themselves.
But Lightbourn’s opposing affinities for the intimate and the epic converge to beautifully woozy effect on “Love Is Everywhere,” a hit of hazy-headed gospel-soul guided by an omnipresent organ hum that functions as a lighthouse beacon in Dunn’s dark night of the soul. “Love is everywhere,” Dunn sings in the chorus, a familiar sentiment he embellishes into “My love is everywhere you are,” transforming a universal hippy-dippy philosophy into an intensely personal, wounded expression of romance in the face of absence. It’s Dunn’s entire career distilled into a single lyric—an all-encompassing, free-ranging musical vision quest that, with Lightbourn, gets fine-tuned into a pure, direct statement of emotional clarity.