Dawn Oberg’s New Album: Through the Bottom of a Glass, Darkly

by delarue

Pianist/songwriter Dawn Oberg seems to have an enthusiastic cult following. She plays respectably small and midsize venues across the country and is well-liked by NPR. The obvious comparison is Aimee Mann, but where Mann looks back to 60s folk-rock and psychedelia, Oberg is more informed by jazz, gospel and soul music. She’s got a New York show at 9 PM on 4/20 – where, you ask? City Winery? The big room at the Rockwood? The Blue Note, or Barbes? Nope. Oberg is playing Bar East, the former Hogs & Heifers space on the Upper East better known as Bare Ast, which pretty much says it all about the kind of disarray facing musicians passing through town.

Although alcohol makes frequent appearances in Oberg’s urbane, wryly literate songs – her new album is titled Rye – disarray is not a factor. She’s a hell of a piano player with a fondness for gospel voicings and sings in a quirky, natter-of-fact contralto, sort of Amy Allison in slo-mo. Oberg keeps the humor deadpan and lets her images speak for themselves. Perfect illustration: the nonchalantly shuffling opening track, Girl Who Sleeps with Books. Oberg slowly pans an apartment that’s perfectly comfortable on one hand, and yet there’s something missing. The brilliance of this song is that this girl, with her notebook and clutter and caffeine addiction, who would rather spend an evening with something more interactive than a novel, is us. Seriously: who doesn’t have a book hiding somewhere in the covers?

The title track juxtaposes jaunty, blues-infused piano rock with a brooding, whiskey-fueled reminscence of a long-gone affair spent “hiking in the Sierras, getting high and watching South Park.” With its breathless torrents of lyrics, Gentleman and a Scholar is 21st century Cole Porter, a portrait of someone who “knows the works of Fats Waller and can play you recordings of them…he taught me how to drive a stick without acting like a prick and in general doesn’t tick me off.” The subtext is killing: Amy Rigby would do this one halfspeed with guitars and pedal steel.

Reconstruction evokes Shine On Brightly era Procol Harum, Roger Rocha adding shifting layers of guitar, a neat touch considering the song’s architectural theme. Parallel Plane revisits the swinging shuffle of the opening track: “The masterpiece I ruined is always on display…like a monster with a toy she’d break rather than hold,” Oberg laments. Cracks, an understatedly haunting, elegaic ballad worthy of Phil Ochs, sets Oberg’s clipped, wounded articulation over Rocha’s distantly symphonic guitar orchestration:

Black orange and red, colors of your bed
The canvas conveys how well you hide the dread
From Larkspur to the Tenderloin
A journey that spans a realm of the coin 
Distant as Marrakesh
Promixity of spirit and flesh
With angles so sharp and unkind
As to sever all you hold as true
You keep close to your heart the cracks killing you

Contortions works a sideshow metaphor for all it’s worth, an exasperated message to someone jumping through hoops for someone when she should really be kicking his ass instead. As a portrait of bitterness and alienation, Disguise makes a more angst-ridden companion to Blow This Nightclub’s Sensitive Skin. To That Extent once again evokes Procol Harum, Erik Ian Walker’s organ mingling with Oberg’s piano for a richly textural feast.

“The breakers shining big and beautiful, will laugh unthinkingly and crush your skull,” Oberg intones matter-of-factly on End of the Continent, its earthquake metaphors gathering intensity in anticipation of the Big One. It’s the album’s catchiest song and a rare moment where Oberg cuts loose at the piano: she always leaves you wanting more. It ends with Civic High, a high-spirited tribute to Oberg’s native San Francisco, her “favorite hedonistic playground.” The only other lyrical rock albums from this year that compare with this are Ward White’s surreal, sinister Bob, and LJ Murphy’s new one, which is in the can but not released yet.