Trent Dabbs | Southerner
Album review by John Powell
Ever since I first saw him playing a small club in Columbus, Ohio seven years ago, Trent Dabbs has been turning out countrified pop folk tunes with touching lyrics. While between his debut, Quite Often, and 2011’s Southerner Trent has released an array of music, including a love-song pop duet EP with Ashley Monroe, and each time Trent has kept his sound while toying with its limits.
Southerner is Trent’s way of nodding to his roots and influences. The album cover doesn’t even have his name on it, just the word “Southerner”, as if to say that Trent Dabbs and Southerner are one in the same. Trent lives in Nashville, where Ready Set Records recorded the album, and it’s beautifully mixed, laced with ghostly backing vocals, piano flourishes, and Trent’s easy, emotive voice. His voice is never lost in the shuffle or the heavy drums.
“Leave to See” displays Trent’s ability to generate off the cuff guitar riffs, minimal bass, drums , and keys. And it tells a story. “Finally lifting off,” Trent sings, “I take the window seat so I can see sky.” He’s traveling on an airplane, and he’s thinking of a woman “miles below,” so he falls asleep to dream about her. The song touches on his life as a touring artist, and the “she” may mean many things, including his wife, but it might mean Tennessee too. Also, “Leave to See” is the only song to successfully rhyme “above” with “love”, as he’s in a plane, above, thinking about his distant love. As an opener, this song fits nicely alongside any Fleet Foxes or Iron and Wine single, for those readers that might more easily recognize these other acts.
“Keep Me Young” is another love song, but again, maybe it’s about a woman, or maybe it’s about a feeling or a place. Trent talks about being a kid, looking for something he’s finally found. “When they call me up/they won’t find me here,” he sings. “I’m with you.” The best part of this song is the simple chorus, featuring a fuzzed out guitar descending low, delicate piano plunking quietly, and backing vocals that feel lighter than air. Imagine driving down a road baked in sunlight. This is the song you should be playing.
A key track is “Don’t Blame Love”, with a guitar strut that would make Johnny Cash proud. “I took the longest drive,” Trent sings; “power line by power line.” It’s a bit rockabilly- but just enough that you know Trent’s sharing another one of his inspirations. The drums are fun, and the duel guitars work nicely together.
Another key track is “Neil Young.” In fact, this powerhouse anthem is a song for the history books. It soars in, rocking, with Trent singing, “If I take all my dreams and I roll them into one/I’d want to be somebody’s Neil Young.” Never has a song directly sung about another musician been so superbly executed. And hearing this, it’s like, duh! Of course Neil Young is a major influence on this folk/rock/lyrics master. “One voice/one guitar/and a simple tune,” Trent growls as everything but the palm-muted acoustic cuts out. “When it’s all broken/there’s no excuse.” By far the loudest song on the record, this track makes no apologies for coming out of nowhere and striking where it counts.
Slowing down, “Me and God” is a wonderfully introspective song questioning what it all means. “I am scared,” Trent coos over solo acoustic. “Me and God got talkin’ to do/ I think he saw me lying through my teeth.” Is he talking about a loved one passed? Is he talking about someone back home while he’s abroad? The questions this song raises make it as haunting as his voice. It’s so stripped down that Trent makes it look easy.
To show his versatility, Trent supplies “Paper Trails”, a song driven by a high hat and snare pop beat, interspersed guitar, and the lines, “When you say, ‘I love you,’/are you talking to yourself?” The song builds through electric guitar glitz, low in the mix, and the layers of instrumentation never seem overcrowded.
The closer, “Southerner”, is a gorgeous bookend, and the epitome of Trent’s lyrical poetics and ability create melancholia through remembering happy moments. “Girl, I’m not done with you yet,” Trent sings. “One thing no man deserves/is the love of a southerner.” The piano is loud yet subtle. Whirling guitar feedback makes it feel like the song is swimming in deep water.
I can’t say enough about this album’s versatility. After all this time, Trent absolutely found his place as a songwriter. His lyrics are inspirational and his music is affecting. Southerner is yet another step forward for him. He’s no longer learning the ropes- he’s walking them. Like his own heroes, Trent’s now the master.