Review: Dessa – Castor, the Twin (2011)

What usually follows an album nowadays is something called a deluxe edition. The original plus added “incentives”, usually b-sides or live recordings haphazardly tacked on often as an afterthought as a way to revitalize interest in an album. To convince me to buy your deluxe edition, paying several dollars more than the original, is something that won’t happen. Now. Here’s the experiment. It’s October 4th, 2011 and Dessa just unveiled her new album, Castor, the Twin to the masses. It’s not a deluxe edition, but somehow it feels that way to me. The songs are songs we’ve heard before (except “The Beekeeper”), the iteration is different. Even though I am as big a fan as any of the songwriter (she authors fiction), writer  (but is not just an author)…that astonishingly creative mind, revisiting songs is something hard to convince. An all-time favorite of the past twelve years, Alkaline Trio, did it with Damnesia, and I didn’t bother listening.

What’s the change? For one, Dessa added Sleeping with Nikki, a short story in a miniature, convenient bundle of pages that was pre-order only. Have yet to read her fiction, was always intrigued-got me on that one. Other change? Unless she’s performing with Doomtree, her live sound is no where close to what it was on Falsehopes or A Badly Broken Code anymore. It’s jazzed up with a live band. So readers, peruse on as this review goes on the first spin of Castor, the Twin.

“551” originally had a snare-heavy beat, subtly draped in piano with a tremendous chorus with a perfectly placed quiver over “Safe with me.” Hitting play, you’ve got Sean McPherson counting off as if all musicians were together in the same room. Piano replaced by Joey Van Phillips on vibraphone. It’s more childlike or innocent, despite Dessa’s voice, which has an unparalleled talent of capturing emotion and restraining it within her vocal chords to be released either sparingly, or in inundations. “511” draws you in far more than before, leading you in before Sean McPherson and Erica Burton surround you with the upright bass and viola. The bass is overwhelmingly lush in all the right notes, while the viola just wisps around the ears like windswept dandelion seeds. First retuned track? Very impressive compared to the original, a perfect representation of how Dessa’s sound has evolved.

“Kites” is reinvigorated by a loose snare, and subtle touches by Aby Wolf. It’s as if you turned up the contrast on the track; each element’s easier to distinguish over the Falsehopes version, but not as much a fundamental change. “Mineshaft” with Dustin Kiel’s guitar is perfectly in line with the live stage version now, including when Dessa takes her chorus up several notes higher on the scale and the ending with Aby. It looses some of the bite to the original, but better suits the chorus of “Mindshaft II”. Dessa moves us into her full length next with “The Chaconne.” The military drill snare with a foreboding piano builds up the anticipation for one of the strongest tracks off A Badly Broken Code. The viola addition in the bridge before the second verse is wonderful, dipping back to a slow, jazzy bass line from McPherson. Aby takes over for Matthew Santos, which happened the last couple times I saw her live. The harmony complements the singing, yet the viola and stand up bass creates the most passion.

The next track is intriguing, as the original had such gorgeous vocals you were prone to forget it had instruments. “Into the Spin” adds thin, plucked droplets of viola and mandolin over a solid, percussive foundation, that stands on its own. The bass solo on “Dixon’s Girl” gives a good refreshing interlude, which I’d’ve love to have a separate, new purely instrumental composition upon first hearing it. It’s the dimly lit, retro-lounge song you always would imagine hearing upon seeing the new Dessa. “The Crow” is quickened, which better emphasizes Dessa’s vocal versatility especially when she raises her voice into singing, then drops it matter-of-factly into the verse. The redo of  “Alibi” is similar to “Kites” in the sense it draws out a broader sonic range. The chorus is completely re-imagined and must be heard, at least to leave people debate which version is better.

The last trio of songs knock the tracklisting around; one off of Paper Tiger’s superb solo Made Like Us, back to Broken Code, then the only 100% new cut, “The Beekeeper”. “Palace” now sounds pure Dessa, although Sean succeeds in recreating the feel of Paper Tiger’s beats. I wish Dustin Kiel had a little more emphasis, or a highlight, especially in that short little bridge around a minute in. However, the piano fits snug and beautifully towards the end. “Mineshaft 2” doesn’t stray too far from the original, which is perfect. The passion in the notes stay similarly emphasized, gritty as needed.

“The Beekeeper” is the purest track on the album, shed of any preconceptions you could have thanks to it being crafted for Castor, the Twin. In it, we get more of a musical breath by way of a piano solo that was hinted upon but not as often utilized on this album. Adding those instrumental spaces, and the play between the aligned harmonies with the strings further solidifies Dessa as one of the most under-appreciated voices in music today.

So as the last note falls, Castor, the Twin is the new Dessa concert goers have been experiencing over the past year. She’s evolved, and finally there’s a record that has encapsulated this transformation.

[Edit: Oct 9th, found a great example of her live sound and what you can expect off of Castor in the above video.]

Dessa
Official | iTunes

Rating: 8.3/10

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