The breadth and sheer number of different voices Mike Dillon has at his command is impressive in just about any setting. On his new solo recording, inspired largely by the music of Elliott Smith, it’s downright staggering—and not just because he plays marimba, xylophone, timpani, orchestral bells, tubular bells, tabla, congas and vibes, although that helps.
The way Dillon deconstructs and reconstructs Smith’s music gives individual song elements—from melody to repeated tension and resolution to harmonic subversion—their own, audible identities, magnifying some of Smith’s most gratifying qualities as a songwriter. On top of that, Dillon approaches his instruments with open ears, tweaking expectations about their sound and use to coax kaleidoscopes of color and lyricism out of each one.
The result is an intensely focused set of music that avoids getting tethered to the anguish Smith is often associated with. The opener, “Half Right,” is darkly pretty in all the right places but also satisfying and anthemic in a way the original version only hinted at. The warm buzz that envelops the intro to “Christian Brothers” casts that Smith classic in a new light, too (as does the lack of lyrical “F” bombs), while “Alameda” provides a jazz-meets-pop interlude that mixes things up.
The non-Smith half of the album features a handful of originals, including the playful “Friendship,” whose appealing staccato thwunks are more in line with Dillon’s self-described “punk jazz freak funk” than the finespun Smith arrangements, and a short yet hypnotizing tabla meditation.
Neil Young’s heroin elegy, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” makes an appearance. And Dillon—who recorded this material between Primus tours more as a fun personal exercise than an intentional album—really sinks his teeth into Exotica lounge master Martin Denny’s “The Enchanted Sea,” dragging what sounds like a thumb against a drum skin in a way that recalls Dillon’s own spoken word/rap voice.