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DEAN McPHEE – “Brown Bear” (LP, Hood Faire)

Posted: January 29th, 2010, by Dave Stockwell

Back in April last year I reviewed a split 7″ between abstract post-rock explorers Chapters and solo electric guitarist Dean McPhee. Of the latter, I mentioned I was looking forward to a full-length from him, so look what turned up in the mail just before Christmas? A 3 track vinyl only offering, encompassing a good 20 minutes of reverb-laden plucking and twanging. Dunno if 20 minutes really constitutes a “full-length”, but it’s beautifully presented in a matt sleeve stuffed with a 180 gram record (limited to 500 copies), so I’m not complaining.

John Fahey has cast a hell of a long shadow over so many of the solo guitarists that have emerged in the last decade and the cult of Six Organs of Admittance has outdone them all, so it’s pleasure to review someone taking a different approach. McPhee’s sound is very simple and uncluttered; he takes his time establishing a feeling before delving further into explorations of melody and mood. The sound of his Telecaster run through a handful of discreet, selectively employed pedals (a little tremolo here, and dash of subtle delay there) into an amplifier is undeniably hi-fi and run through with the inimitable “Fender clean” sound. His finger picking and smooth hands make his songs ebb and flow as naturally as a stream wending its way through his home country of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s all admirably pleasant and a relaxing experience; McPhee has little time for building tension or pushing the limits of tonality. Instead, the listener experiences ragas quite unlike the endless Fahey knock-offs, and the two longer songs here offer diverting mental excursions without the leaden promise of over-wrought climax or denouement.

If I was to offer any criticism of McPhee’s song craft, it’s that he doesn’t take enough risks for my tastes. All these tracks are reportedly first takes and exhibit some signs of improvisations, but it’s rare that you get the feeling he is playing anywhere near the limits of his comfort zone – both in terms of technique, but also in explorations of how the notes he plays fit together. His laid-back, thoughtful style can’t be faulted in terms of precision, but there’s no sense of mess, of sparkling inspiration or epiphany here: I feel he could have knocked out a good hour’s worth of this stuff without breaking sweat. And without the sweat, that graft, it all just seems a little too easy, a little too much like the record you’d pull out to play your future mother-in-law to convince her that not all the music you like is a blasted racket without a tune.

Dean McPhee is obviously a very talented musician and a master of his own craft; I’d just like to see him push himself that little bit further – get right to the limits and find out where the real magic happens. Until then, this record is a lovely late-night slow-burner that you can settle into without having to commit any of yourself to. If McPhee can start putting some grit into his work and capture a little bit of that undefinable soul, I’d really start to prick my ears up and listen hard.

Dean McPhee on Myspace
Hood Faire