Dakota Dust

Mark McKay

Independent release, 2010


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Surrealistic cowboy poetry.  Springsteen on mescaline.  Steve Earle on a literary jag.  Wilco with grit. 

These are but a few of the phrases that come to mind when listening to Mark McKay’s latest batch of expansive, exotic Americana, urgent, whiskey-fed melodies topped with lyrics that often seem to consist of a string of vivid images and striking non sequiturs.

“The Devil’s in the voodoo / I got no money in the bank” goes the chorus to the opener, and while I have no idea what the hell that’s supposed to mean, it sounds amazing, and the song that backs it is an earthy, chugging anthem, a tune that practically begs you to sing along to its inscrutable couplets. 

“Maybe not what you wanted, maybe what you need” sings McKay in the lilting, slightly wistful sophomore tune “Shimmer,” and it seems to summarize a certain gut feeling that runs through this album, and indeed McKay’s entire body of work.  Nothing is quite what you expected, but you end up feeling like what you’re getting is of exceptionally good quality.  “You were wild,” sings McKay, “So am I.”  Indeed.

McKay also surely counts John Fogerty as one of his musical heroes; that much seems clear from the swamp-boogie undertones of the opening stanzas of “My Angel,” at least before it drives forward purposefully into a rich and lovely chorus that delivers on every promise made by the first two verses.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Revelation Man” is a Dylanesque screed against following false prophets of all sorts, with the closing verse seemingly aimed squarely at Bushes junior and senior’s Iraq fixation: “So the president called his father / And didn’t really say that much to him / Quick hello, that’s all / Nothin to the call / But a deep recognition of ‘Daddy, I know you understand’ / Gonna burn down that revelation land.”

Impressions from there… “Tariffville Town” has a distinct Big Pink feel with its mandolin, organ and rich country-fied harmonies.  The loping, marching cadence of “Bullets” matches up perfectly with the rather Johnny Cash charismatic-loner impressionist narrative – “Your fear is a weapon that you’ve become / You’ve got bullets, barbed wire, now you’re a gun… You can’t turn back and you must press on.” 

“Hold Me Down” assaults with heavy, almost grungy guitars and lyrics like “this death is sweetness” … “Sick And Tired” feels like a Springsteen mashup matching the music of “Pink Cadillac” with the lyric to “I’m Goin’ Down”… “Be Steady” is an upbeat singalong featuring one of the strongest images on the album: “There’s streaky daylight bleeding in the sky”… and “Stumblestreets” closes things out in fine fashion, a song full of ragged majesty and boldly sketched vignettes.

Dakota Dust is McKay’s third studio album and finds him again teaming with Steve Earle sideman, guitarist and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a partnership that has now delivered two of the best alt-country disks of the past decade in this one and 2004’s Shimmer. The production manages to be full and raw all at once, and at times mirrors the approach Brendan O’Brien has taken with Springsteen’s last three albums.

Speaking of influences, the beautiful trick that McKay pulls off again here is to take cues from each of his without ever imitating any of them; for all its obscure surrealism, McKay’s artistic voice is both distinct and distinctly his own.  It’s like a Johnny Cash concert, a poetry slam and a dive into Monet’s waterlily pond happening all at once in your head… big, rumbly and disorienting, but full of beauty and wonder as well. Dakota Dust is an experience, and one you shouldn’t miss.

Rating: A

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