London’s Duke Garwood is apparently not content to merely fall in line with the current pack of blues revivalists, nor does he quite comfortably fit in amongst his singer-songwriter peers. Certainly, Garwood is rooted in the American blues tradition, but it often seems as though he’s strained it through the tail of his shirt somewhere in the swamps of London, resulting in a mason jar half filled with sweat and brine, and primed to be catapulted into space to whirl among the satellites.
Garwood’s Dreamboatsafari is an album whose name gives no hint at all to the music contained within. One hears a title like that and immediately the old synapses fire, linking to things like Harry Belafonte’s Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), or maybe even loose associations with Jimmy Buffet or Jack Johnson. These misfired connections could not be further from the truth.
Instead, Dreamboatsafari is a sonic fever dream, at times mired in thick, sludgy blues (the excellent opener Jesus Got A Gun, and Rank Panache) and at others seeming phoned in from the icy reaches of lonely outer space (Space Trucker Lady) or caught up in the terrible rituals of blood cults (the spooky, droning Panther). But hidden among all these aural diversions, Garwood also turns in the excellent pop tune, Summer Gold, which may well be destined to rank among the most memorable and affecting tracks of the year (by those who’ve heard it). And by the time Tapestry Of Mars changes things up, introducing a squealing and harrowing saxophone-organ interplay, the listener has either bought in or checked out.
The recordings on Dreamboatsafari seem imbued with the haunted spirits of the blues tradition, sounding warm and analogue, woodshedded and homemade, just the way they should be. Garwood’s six-string sounds beat to hell and are at once intimate and massive; the percussion is recorded from a distance, allowing the creep of room noises to infiltrate the sonic palette; and Garwood’s croaking baritone is something of a ghost itself, barely intelligible and distantly moody.
Everything contained herein seems meant to be heard through the haze of a late night’s pondering. Such are the diverse worlds Garwood creates: you could get lost in the fog and spend the night circling the same stand of trees, narrowly escaping the hellhounds on your trail. But the shifting moodiness never feels forced or insincere; Garwood is a deft and trustworthy tour guide for the disparaging worlds he’s created.
But there’s not much to hold onto on Dreamboatsafari. The album’s production lends it a definite atmospheric depth that is largely lacking in today’s singer-songwriter fare but, devoid of hooks or memorable melodies, Garwood’s music risks being allocated to the fringe, meant only for serious listeners and students of the modern blues.
Yet Duke Garwood is doing something completely different from his peers. His music is challenging to be sure, though the dedicated listener will find much to love on Dreamboatsafari. An album like this doesn’t come along often, and as such, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with it. Ultimately, Garwood is an exciting presence in the modern blues landscape and Dreamboatsafari is worth the trip for anyone fed up with the state of the genre.