Monday, August 09, 2010

David Dondero: # Zero With a Bullet

David Dondero
# Zero With a Bullet
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Team Love

The album cover for David Dondero's # Zero With a Bullet is hideous, featuring the type of amateurish layout one would expect from a suburban garage goth band. A background map displays names like Bitter Creek, Badwater and Wamsutter and actually fits the album's subject matter, but the red font used for both the artist name and album title is reminiscent of a cheap slasher flick or something from the hair-metal 1980s (think Skid Row's self-titled debut and you won't be too far off). Slightly off center is the album cover's point of focus and most egregious image: a Mr. Suit type inside a skeleton - it's metaphorical, see? - that appears to be tacked to the map by its clavicle. Taken as a whole, it's a strong frontrunner for worst album cover of the year.

The actual content of Dondero's latest effort is better. Though it doesn't stray too far from the folk-country of previous records like Shooting at the Sun With a Water Gun or Simple Love, Dondero's ability to mix tried-and-true Americana with slightly off-kilter characters and the occasional lyrical diamond usually offsets the album's lack of originality. Geography is once again the dominant figure in Dondero's songs; Oregon, Austin, the Cape Fear River, downtown Laramie, Wyoming and numerous points in every direction are all referenced, as the album literally crisscrosses the country from one song to the next. Other songs offer a veritable checklist of images from roughhouse America, whether it's the American West of the the man in a cowboy hat who sells beer and looks like Wyatt Earp in "It's Peaceful Here," the freight trains of "Carolina Moon" or the trucker's life of the struggling musician recounted in the down-and-out title song.

Bullet has its share of nice instrumental moments, most noticeably in the steel guitar and keyboards of "It's Peaceful Here" and the rapid-fire rhythm of "Wherever You Go." The unabashedly classic rock tones of "Jesus From 12 to 6" give a sharp edge to Dondero's sneering vocals ("I don't trust a goddamn thing that you say"), while by design or coincidence, the arrangement on "Job Boss" recalls Neil Young country songs like "Old King" and "Homegrown." Each song's production is solid and there is little in the way of studio over-embellishments, giving these songs a feel of authenticity that allows the listener to focus on the content.

Most of the album follows a similar pattern, an approach that eventually feels vacuous. It's a safe, middle-of-the-road release, reminiscent of everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Uncle Tupelo, and too frequently little more than just another entry in an already-crowded field. There's no questioning Dondero's skill as a lyricist. Nearly each song includes at least one phrase or image that makes these songs come to life, snippets like, "dice games in the neon lights" or "three sheets to the stagnant air." Coupled with a dose of levity - "Don't Be Eyeballin' My Po'Boy, Boy" exalts that famous Louisiana culinary invention - Dondero brings plenty of wit to # Zero With a Bullet. Still, a lot of wit and a little bit of country twang aren't enough to compensate for an album that plays to its creator's strengths but also sounds like someone simply treading musical water.

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