Matthew “Doc” Dunn is a texture man and a musician of innumerable talents.
In the years since his last solo release, Matthew “Doc” Dunn has been an omnipresent yet mysterious contributor to some of Toronto’s most exciting musical projects. The Cosmic Range’s debut record was a psychedelic sound collage that was wild but tastefully reigned in. A year later, they assumed the role of Meg Remy’s backup band on the future classic by U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited. Dunn’s presence is often talked about, but it’s not always clear exactly what he does. On his new album Lightbourn the strengths he is known for become extremely clear, despite being regulated to the background. Dunn is a texture man and a musician of innumerable talents. On Lightbourn he plays (deep breath): six and 12-string acoustic guitars, slides, solos, drums, bass, organ, electric piano, and vibraphone. The only other musicians featured are Meg Remy and Isla Craig, whose background vocals serve as the steam rising off of Dunn’s hearty sonic soup.
While I may be a more recent convert into Doc’s sonic world, Lightbourn seems unlikely. These are not droney soundscapes, nor are there any extended psyche-funk jams. Instead, these are gorgeous, pained, singer-songwriter songs. That said, Dunn still had the urge to make them anything but that. According to him, producer Jeff McMurrich was in charge of “helping me record the vocals professionally so I wouldn’t sabotage myself à la Alex Chilton.” The help paid off. Dunn’s vocals are not pitch perfect, but in the vein of Neil Young or Chad VanGaalen, the imperfection feels very human and his white-boy soul croon could bring any seasoned dad-rocker to tears. Case and point: the sparse “Simple One”, one of several love songs on Lightbourn, features little more than a finger-picked guitar and Dunn’s near falsetto and is one of the albums most memorable moments.
Lightbourn builds slowly, but by the album’s fourth song — the vibraphone dreamscape “Pleasures (To Win?)” — the mood is set and you won’t want to leave the warm confines of Dunn’s sonic quilt. Things start getting groovy with “Keep Me In The Light”, which comes off as some sort of middle ground between British Invasion and Motown. “Mind of My Lover”, originally penned as an homage to Mary J. Blige of all people, is the closest the album gets to Cosmic Range territory and is by far the sexiest song on the album; between the wah-wah guitar and Meg Remy’s backups, it’s irresistible. The album’s penultimate song “Love Is Everywhere” is its longest and its best. Getting closer to On The Beach-era Neil Young & Crazy Horse than any other track, Dunn shows off his guitar chops and his knack for finding a groove. “Baby, please remember my love is everywhere you are,” he professes, achingly and sincerely. For a guy who may seem like he is better at expressing himself through ambience and instrumentals, the clarity with which he pens lyrics is a striking and essential feature across Lightbourn.
I suggest showing up to Lightbourn for the soupy ambience Dunn creates and staying for the songs that reveal themselves once you’ve settled into the sound. However unexpected it may be to hear Dunn in this context, it is reveltory to hear him come out from underneath his cowboy hat and bare his sweet soul so plainly. Lightbourn proves that Dunn’s strength is more than just as a texture man — he is also damn fine songwriter.