Gareth Dickson: Orwell Court

With Orwell Court, Glasgow-based Gareth Dickson returns with his 12k follow-up to 2012's Quite A Way Away (for the record, Orwell Court is issued on Discolexique in Europe). As someone who's arguably more singer-songwriter than ambient-electronic artist, he would seem to be a rather anomalous part of the 12k roster, but it's less an odd fit than it might first appear. As he's done before, he gives as much attention to sound design and production as the songs themselves, and as such the listener ends up captivated by the album's pure sonic character along with his hushed vocals and acoustic guitar playing.

Throughout the thirty-six-minute set, subtle atmospheric textures—background vocals, analogue delay, and reverb among them—imbue these pastoral reveries with a soft glow, and in addition, unexpected instrumental touches, drums, for instance, in one song and harmonica in another, help individuate one setting from another. As if to accentuate the recording's sound design dimension, “The Solid World” eschews vocals altogether for an entrancing instrumental display of softly thrumming guitars awash in ambient textures. The fingerpicking patterns that animate many a song also bolster the music's lulling effect, and as a result one finds oneself repeatedly transported by the material.

The opening songs are enhanced by guests' contributions: in the opener “Two Halfs,” wordless vocalizing by Vashti Bunyan, with whom Dickson has toured extensively, colours the background, whereas Celine Brooks' bright voice enlivens “The Big Lie” by shadowing Dickson's throughout the song. His lyrics are allusive, which makes their meanings less easy to pin down (sample verse: “Red road, dusty wide and free / Seemed to me / Smoke rose, two and one were three / Or seemed to be”). As a result, the listener experiences them as more evocative musings than anything else and as much time is spent focusing on the manner by which the lyrics are delivered.

Some degree of kinship between Dickson and Nick Drake has been noted in these pages before, and the connection still holds albeit subtly. But though the former's hushed vocals and stripped-down presentation do in places call to mind the music of his forebear (e.g., “Snag With the Language”), Dickson's material holds up perfectly well on its own. It's interesting that the album's sole cover is of Joy Division's “Atmosphere,” which emerges so wholly transformed, anyone unfamiliar with the original would naturally take it for a Dickson composition. At seven songs Orwell Court appears slight, but its modest duration and song total are a tad deceptive: each song draws one deeply into its atmospheric world and the experience of listening to this rather bewitching album becomes, in its own quiet way, transformative.

March 2017