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I had originally hoped Andrew Olson would take this album but I guess this is as good of time as any to explain a little about how I ended up writing CD reviews in the first place. When I was 21 I went down to a newly opened establishment called the Twin Ports Brewery in Superior to do a write up for The Promethean which was the UW-Superior school paper at that time. I went down there on a Sunday and there was an open mic going on. I did the story, but being a musician myself, I went there the next week, then the week after that and I just kept going. Eventually the original hosts left or started flaking out and I somehow ended up becoming the host myself. The Twin Ports Brewery eventually changed owners and turned into the Thirsty Pagan. There’s a whole lot more to why I write CD reviews, but this IS a CD review, not an autobiography.
I forget when a tall lanky guy named Dan Dresser stopped into the Sunday open mic; it was a number of years ago. I immediately appreciated the mix of Dresser’s wacky stage presence and songs that ranged from ridiculous to heart wrenching and sad. I’m also not sure when a young woman named Stephanie Dykema (now Longstreet) started showing up was well, but the duo wowed the audience each time they played at the open mic. Before this, there was a band called The Brushstrokes that involved Dresser and Dykema. The Brushstrokes were very experimental but always maintained an undeniable catchiness and quirkiness and this general feel is carried over into Three Song Sunday.
Within a short amount of time, the duo of Dresser and Dykema had a solid assortment of songs that they’d perform at the open mic. After awhile, they named the project Three Song Sunday because on busy nights I’d give most acts just three songs, although I will say I usually gave them four songs, but for some reason “Four Song Sunday” doesn’t sound as cool.
There’s something about Dresser’s songs that seems like it’s rejoicing in sadness. I could compare this feeling to the Postal Service where a lot of the songs are very upbeat, but the lyrics are anything but happy. The album starts out with “Nothing Over You,” and it stays very catchy and upbeat, but with the pre-chorus of, “the hardest part of this is letting go, as far as you and me, we will never know,” which is contrasted by the bubbly chorus, “oh, my darling, they’ve got nothing over you,” which is accented by Longstreet’s backing vocals keeps the song in an emotional battle within itself, but it like many of the songs on this album, it’s based more off of defeat and sadness.
Likewise, the song “Unabashedly Crazy,” Longstreet’s backing vocals are very light, kind of silly and candid, but Dresser’s parts are detailing a dark part of his life. Achieving happiness and sadness at the same time in a song is something that I often marvel at, and Dresser pulls this off throughout most of this album.
One of the things that really ties together the sound of Three Song Sunday is Longstreet on the harmonica. The song “Nothing Seems To Matter,” shifts away from a standard flow of verse and chorus but maintains it’s catchiness by bouncing from emotional lyrics to the hook in the middle of, “nothing seems to matter.” It keeps the listener constantly engaged with the changes and they’re not complex changes to make an extreme example, “Terrapin Station” by Grateful Dead, but it slows down and speeds up and the shifts between loud and soft are set perfectly to keep the song interesting and intense. Again there is an upbeat feeling in the music itself that is offset by not the happiest of lyrics. My main complaint on this song is that when played live, the song usually ends off with the repeated chant of “a man walked up and said sorry about your blackened eye.” In this recording, it is chanted once while fading out which seemed a little hasty.
It’s debatable, but the most outstanding track on the album is titled “Penguins” and I say this because although there is indeed an amazing amount of honesty and emotional intensity in this album, this song drives home accessibility along with what I mentioned earlier about that some songs are heart wrenching.The chorus, “still I wonder why, birds that never fly, feel the same as me, patiently walking away,” is not only catchy but is easy to relate to in some way. As far as effects go on this album, it’s often rather dry, and that’s not to say that’s a bad thing, an album totally soaked with effects isn’t usually a great thing, but at the end of this song, effects are tastefully laid in and it creates depth. On this track Gaelynn Lea of Murder of Crows and Snobarn lays down the violin and creates an even more sentimental and powerful sound. Matt Mobley also plays upright bass on the track. The backing musicians on this album also include the impressive line up of Tyler Dubla on drums, Ethan Thomson on electric bass, Sara Softich on violin, Dave Mehling on organ, Steve Isakson on guitar and John Craig on soprano sax.
Speaking of effects, the track “Face In The Mirror,” has plenty going on with that. One of the main things about Three Song Sunday is the vocal harmonization between Dresser and Longstreet. On this track there are at least two vocal parts by Longstreet that are panned out in stereo and have plenty effects that aren’t over done and Dresser’s vocal parts are deepened with a little reverb on the track and it’s fitting. The most notable part is the breakdown at 2:40 in to the track, Dresser’s vocal effects fall off and the effect on the drums creates an awesome feel for the song, not to mention what sounds like ambient guitar noise during that part. They mess around and experiment a little with this album, which is what should be done on any album in my opinion.
The song “18 Sailors” has a back story to it which I’ve Dresser heard explain on a couple of occasions. It is also the song that mentions the album’s title, “Don’t Be Sad On Me.” When Dresser’s grandfather died, apparently he was allowed to drive the hearse and on the way to gravesite, he was tempted to pull off the course and take one last drive with his grandfather. The song is somewhat haunting and is accented by the saxophone played by John Craig. There is also underlying noise such as unintelligible voices and other sounds that are in the mix which adds a certain vibe to this slightly eerie song.
The tracks “Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy” and “Happily” are also wonderful songs and continue on with the sometimes somber feel of this album. The song “Happily” features Sara Softich on the violin and a solid harmonica part by Longstreet. Although there is a plenty of sad emotion in the album, “Happily” is perhaps one of the most sincerely depressing songs on the album aside from perhaps “Penguins.” Although the songs come off as a downer they always have a certain feel of optimism and rising above that’s hard to explain.
The last track, “Silver Star,” is the only track not written by Dresser on the album. The track was written by Softich and it stands out because it primarily features Longstreet’s vocals which start off pitch shifted on the first verse. This leads me to the only thing that kind of bothers me about the album, and this shouldn’t be a major draw back to anyone who doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about things like production, mixing and mastering. Some of the stuff in this album wasn’t mixed that great. It’s really subtle, but sometimes it’s a guitar that’s just sitting a little too high or Longstreet’s vocals are sitting a little low. It’s a small thing and it’s understandable since I don’t think they blew tons of money on this album. Eric Swanson is credited for mixing and mastering and has worked on quite a few really great albums that I’ve listened to since I’ve been reviewing CDs. I think a couple of more ears and a couple more listens to take in this album before it was released could have smoothed it out a little bit. I’ll say again, the mixing issues are subtle and don’t really detract very much from it.
On a final note, what Dresser and Longstreet achieve with Three Song Sunday are songs that flow out with emotion, beauty and an inherent catchiness throughout. As mentioned, when listening to a lot these tracks, it’s hard to decide whether it’s sad or happy. There is something immensely human about these songs. I’m aware that Dresser has gone through some ups and downs like all of us, but these songs strike a chord of honesty and experience that is rare. Although they found it fit to name their band after an open mic that I run, if I had never heard this group before, I’d still listen to this regularly.