Still In The Same Dream: Songs 1972-1982
Most people in New Zealand who know of Dennis O’Brien – especially Wellingtonians – will know him as the owner of Slow Boat Records. That’s how I knew him before finding out he had a career as a solo artist – a singer/songwriter signed to an international label. I’ve since heard the original records so when it came time to take this on board; a career retrospective from O’Brien’s other life I was certainly prepared, I knew what to expect.
These are songs from a trio of records released when O’Brien was focussing on his career as musician. Time has brought with it a family and the need for steady work, for changes to occur because a full-time dedication to the craft would have meant compromises he didn’t want to make. O’Brien’s recording career stopped over 30 years ago. When I first asked him if he’d make the songs available on CD one day – or in some format at least – he wasn’t all that interested. With further time he’s decided to release this compilation, to put the best of the songs in one place for his daughters, for family, for interested friends.
The arrangements – a slightly-baroque, sometimes folk-ish, often progressive rock-lite version of pop music hint at some of his prime influences: early rock’n’roll subsiding into the crooners, Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, Elton John.
There’s a stubbornness to the way these songs were created – you can imagine if O’Brien had hit the big time he’d have rested in some place between Cat Stevens and Todd Rundgren, artistically and perhaps philosophically, certainly sonically. Songs like Move With The Light and Any Other Face In The Rain suggest pop-hit-of-their time; there’s no easy way to write about this music without confirming it has dated – for that’s what happens when an artist leaves their post, when the music is left to sit, left on hold. For in fact these songs still feel alive, they still shine, some of them still want to soar, they’re anchored only by their arrangements. And in the case of a handful of the best works here the arrangements still give some hint of lustre – even if the best that can be said, once again, is that they’re of their time, that they would have sounded great at that time.
There’s definitely a hint of Meat Loaf/Steinman in the arrangements – Meat Loaf might have been wise to cover one or two of these songs (O’Brien probably would have been happy with that outcome, fiscally at least).
But for the most part this is music – now – that sounds like it arrived without precedent, without peer, defying comparison then. That’s a nice way to discover/rediscover music. That’s what happens when a musician walks away and leaves what was being created against fashion at the time. For O’Brien’s piano-led balladry was recorded in the punk era. It not only had nothing to do with the dominant musical forms of the time – it all but snubbed them, looked down on them perhaps. That’s helped this retain (or obtain, rather) an edge of curiosity now. There’s a strange charm and calm to a lot of this music. A bit like the ELO album tracks that don’t make the big hit compilations; a bit like the artists that never quite got the fame they perhaps deserved such as Rare Bird.
Also – in and around all the crazy, so-straight-it’s-bent pop-from-another-time there’s the stately ballad, Everybody’s Going Crazy. That might be worth the price of admission alone.
Almost is good is Can You See Me.
Also – speaking of price of admission, I should think anyone who’s shared a conversation over the counter with Dennis or enjoyed time in his great store might want to check this out. And that would absolutely be fair enough. Being a career-summary, a single-disc big-serve it is a lot to take in over one play. But there’s a lot to like here. And there’s something interesting in the story/back-story of it all time. Great session players are involved, O’Brien provides thoughtful, honest liners. It’s a smart – and worthy – package; a good move then for him to dust around in the back shed and tidy up these missives and messages from the past.