I stumbled upon the sublimely understated music of David M. Lewis when I was opening the Sunday line up at the Guildford Blues and Roots Explosion in 2007. The first thing that strikes the listener upon hearing Dirtbird is the unashamed and almost all pervasive use of very slow tempo – something that not many songwriters are brave enough to engage in, outside of the odd soppy ballad, let alone employ as a musical signature.

Dirtbird (Dave M. Lewis and Cathy English) at the Guildford Blues & Roots Explosion 2007

Dirtbird’s music is an exploration of the interaction of sound within the silence of vast spaces. This emerges in Dave’s lyrics as well, which tend to explore meaty universal themes – alienation, freedom, love and death – the songs of disembodied characters singing love songs to nature and hymns to elemental forces. You might describe it as secular holy music, or the songs of a true pagan (pagan being used here in it’s original sense of country dweller – someone in touch with the spirit of nature).

My introduction to the recordings of Dirtbird was 2007’s White Horse Road, which became an object of musical idolatry to me at the time. The subtle weaving of guitar, cello, and male and female vocals – not to mention the almost biblical themes, haunted me for a number of months. 2008’s Cathedral didn’t grab me in the same way, but then I was just in the first throws of fatherhood, and didn’t have the time to really devote to listening to it with the attention that it properly deserved.

Enter 2010’s The Traveller, Dirtbird’s 4th and possibly most intricate recording.

The Traveller (or any of Dirtbird’s albums for that matter) is not a CD to be played idly in the car, or while vacuuming the house. I know because I tried. It was only when I sat down and payed attention that I really heard the beautiful subtle nuances of Kramer’s production. It is therefore an album to drown in, via headphones or on a hi-fidelity sound system, in the dead silence of the night, or away from the unholy clamour of the noisy city.

There is a sonic consistency in Dirtbird recorded output (at least in the 3 CD’s that I own). The sound is recognisably Dirtbird. One curious fact is that while there is a different female vocalist on each recording (Cathy English on White Horse Road, Victoria Moss on Cathedral, and Kimshar Wolfs on The Traveller) the vocal arrangement, and hence the overall sound, remains the same. Dave’s voice is distinctive and emotive, while the female backing, with its predominantly alto nuances and lovely washes of ‘Strain tends to be understated and supportive, only taking on their own idiosyncrasies in the odd song where the female voice takes the lead, such as the beautifully haunting “We Rise”.

That being said, there are other interesting departures from this formula that prick up your ears. “The Song to the Sea”, could have been plucked straight from some obscure medieval folk mass, with it’s beautiful middle-eastern modal melody and sweet close harmonies.

The addition of other instrumentation does not distract from the minimalist beauty of Dave’s songs – testament to Kramer’s skillful production. In fact on first listening (albeit in the car) I hardly noticed them at all. Now, after a number of careful listens and growing familiarity with the material, I can’t help but applaud the graceful addition that the subtle use of Richard Pleasance’s bass, Mary Thorpe’s drums and particularly Kristin Rule’s glorious cello adds to Dirtbird’s sound, without taking away from the minimalist largo ethic that is Dirtbird’s signature.

If you like music that is thoughtful, slow, sparse, emotive and open and you don’t mind waking in the middle of the night with a haunting line or lyric playing itself interminably inside your head then you will appreciate and come to love Dirtbird’s music as much as I do.

Visit Dirtbird’s myspace page to hear select tunes from this wonderful album.

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