A member of Plainsong from 1991-1996, as well as part of the 2003 reunion and 2012 farewell, Julian Dawson has also contributed to albums by such names as Peter Sarstedt, Iain Matthews (they also released two duo albums), The Roches, Gerry Rafferty and Katy Moffatt, not to mention carving out his own career (albeit better known in Germany) that includes 22 solo albums. Astonishing then, to realise that I’ve only ever reviewed one of those under his own name, Hillybilly Zen, a 2002 collaboration with Gene Parsons.
So, this is a sort of personal catch-up and a wake-up call to what I’ve been missing. Over the years, the dust and smoke-voiced Dawson has frequently collaborated with the legendary Dan Penn, and the partnership’s renewed here on Living Good with Penn behind his Nashville studio desk as well as contributing vocals and two co-writes. The first co-write, Roll With The Animals, provides the opening track, a gentle reflective acoustic number about living your life as a part of nature with a catchy chorus and harmonies from, not only Penn, but Barry and Holly Tashian (the former one of the founding members of original Flying Burrito Brothers) and keyboards courtesy of Billy Livsey.
Penn lends his vocals to two other numbers, a breathily soft folk blues revisiting of 80s Dawson recording When Hearts Collide (now devoid of the original’s ill-fitting synths and drum machines) featuring Michael Henderson on guitar, and, digging into his own past, the laid back lazybones Spooner Oldham co-write I’m Living Good, a 60s hit for The Ovations, here with Jim Hoke on pedal steel.
The final Penn co-write, along with Dawson’s daughter Clancy (who came up with the title when she was four), is brief sunny calypsoish album closer Yes, Yes Happiness, the other collaboration being with Bill Lloyd on Brand New Pen, a song which, featuring some background banter by Elvis, is about how we collect and worship the dusty relics of our icons, but while “we can dial up the history, we’ve lost the spark”.
Otherwise, save for a cover of 1959 Ricky Nelson hit Teenage Idol, an early lament about the loneliness of fame, and, unaccompanied save for wailing harmonics, the trad Sportin’ Life Blues (a number he’s been playing live for 30 years, but never previously recorded), the remaining numbers are all Dawson originals.
Of these, featuring Jim Hoke on clarinet, the moody Duke is a particular standout with its lyric about an underachieving drifter still looking for his place in life (“left hanging like the punchline in someone else’s joke”). Elsewhere, the totally solo Rusty Old Car is firmly in Guthrie tradition, Someone You Love recalls old school country (Dawson once produced and played for Charlie Louvin), rock n roll calypso Lorraine, Lorraine (“the younger sister of Richard Thompson’s Valerie”) is a meeting between Buddy Holly and Harry Belafonte, while, bringing out his sentimental side, the crooningly tender I’m Going To Miss You was written for his daughter when she left for college at 16.
The analogue recording captures the warmth in Dawson’s voice and delivery (at times reminiscent of John Sebastian) and for that relaxed, uplifting listen at the end of a long day, it comes highly recommended. Now, I’ve got 30 years of back catalogue to catch up on.
Review by: Mike Davies