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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

DEAN McPHEE / CHAPTERS – Split (7″, World in Winter)

Posted: April 30th, 2009, by Dave Stockwell

World in Winter are the kind of label I like a lot – interested in unusual or experimental music, but consistently finding stuff that is familiar enough to make listening an easy thing. It may sound obvious, but it’s a hard balance to strike as consistently and as well as WiW do. This, their latest release, is a split 7″ between solo guitarist Dean McPhee and the band Chapters, who I reviewed a while back.

This would appear to be the debut release by Dean McPhee, a man who marries a melodic fingerpicking style to unusual guitar tunings and chords, backing them up with subtle effects to increase the otherwordly atmosphere. You can listen to his contribution to this 7″, a song called “Water Burial”, at last.fm. A smoothly echoing series of variations on a raga-like theme, it’s a beguiling and soothing listen. Personally, I can do without the vibrato effect on the guitar, but that’s probably what gave the song its name – the sound is akin to ripples of water spreading out from a slowly sinking object – say, a coffin? Overall it’s nice stuff and should be a decent precursor to a debut fell-length album later this year.

Chapters are an experimental group who tend towards the more ambient than the crashing crescendo side of rock. Their song “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a further development from ‘EP1’ and a triumph of sparse beauty. A heavily tremeloed guitar starts the track, joined by a droning moog organ and muted drum machine beat. These three elements intertwine and then ebb and flow from each other as further layers of muted keyboards, guitar and electronics are added to the mix. It’s a a subtle and slowly unfurling beauty of a track, and hands down the best thing I’ve heard by Chapters to date.

Overall all then, this is a tasty listen and well worth tracking down. It’s been out a wee while, so head on over to the World in Winter website to hear some previews and find out where you can sort yourself a copy.

Dean McPhee