Minnesota Music Reviews: Dave Simonett
The lonely Turtle: Dave Simonett makes a record on his own
By Mark Nicklawske
As the great pandemic bludgeoned the live entertainment industry it caused many musical heartbreakers - take Dave Simonett for example: The Trampled by Turtles frontman released his first album under his own name - the gorgeous Red Tail, - on March 12 of last year. Shortly afterwards, stage lights went dark forcing the songwriter to cancel a tour and lose the valuable promotion associated with it.
Rather than take the next 12 month off, Simonett found a safe, socially-distanced activity to ride out the shutdown. He retreated to his South Minneapolis basement and created a new record all by himself. Those solitary recording sessions produced the five-song EP Orion,released April 30.
“I felt like I needed to do something musically in that time and I wasn’t able to do it with anybody else, so I figured what the hell, I’ll record them by myself,” he told the Folk Alley webcaster Cindy Howes during a April 28 guest DJ session. “I had to figure it all out myself. I treasured it. It was really fun.”
While Orion may have been fun to record, it’s clearly not a relaxed, good-times, play-around-and see-what-happens solo effort. This is serious stuff. Simonett has written five songs that could make up the heart of a Trampled by Turtles album. He has pushed the songs beyond demo stages and delivered a thoughtful, well-constructed piece of music that has an intense, intimate, personal feel.
It’s Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska without the blood and guts.
Few have questioned The Boss about the decision to leave the E Street Band off his 1982 masterpiece. The stripped-down, lo-fi solo recording enhanced the dark, haunting moods lurking throughout the songs. But some may ask Simonett why he didn’t wait out the pandemic and record his work with the band.
Would these songs have been better served with a high-octane Ryan Young fiddle solo or surrounded by soaring Tim Saxhaug harmonies?
But close to 20 years into his recording career, Simonett has earned the right to experiment with his craft. Push the music into a different place, explore new sounds and express himself independently. When good songs are ready it's not right to hold them back and this hand-crafted EP makes them shine in a different way.
Orion delves into many of the same Trampled By Turtles themes: The road, lost love and regrettable decisions. The slow-burning song arcs, acoustic-center and Simonett’s gentle, melancholy singing style are all here. What’s different is the size of the music - it’s a wonderfully, quiet, clean and compact sound.
Record opener “The Sun Oh Yeah” builds to a classic Trampled By Turtles climax. But it’s not buoyed by five musical instruments and a wall of harmonies. It’s just an acoustic guitar and Simonett’s double-tracked voice. More might be too much.
“Miles Away” is a full-throated road song showcasing just enough sweet-picking acoustic guitar.
The centerpiece of the record is “Central HIllside Blues.” A piano-driven song without a chorus. ”They ripped up the streets in old Duluth,” sings Simonett. “A violent reminder of an older truth.” A jagged, stuttering electric guitar solo is featured, describing troubled souls in a crumbling city better than any banjo or mandolin could.
Simonett introduces a plaintive harmonica on “Nothing But Blue Skies” and closes the record with “The High Road,” a song that fades out with a long, foggy, distorted piano.
Orion might leave some Trampled by Turtles fans wondering what could have been - and maybe the songs will find their way onto a full band release someday. It’s strong material and a successful project. So strong it couldn’t be stopped by a pandemic.