Reviewed by Tobin Mueller:
“jiguma dreaming” is an excellent example of self-produced home-made recording. Neil’s music has a signature sound, a result of his hypnotic acoustic guitar grooves and almost Island sense of ease and dreaminess. His vocals, layered and EQ’d in his unique way, float through each track like a buzzing didjeridu, saying things far more complex than his well-crafted short lines can hold. Lyrics from Gulaga Dreaming come to mind:
Who owns these hands?
Who owns the face behind the mirror?
Whose thoughts are these?
That drift around inside my head?
There is always a sense of something else going on, ghosts and too personal histories and haunting regrets. Neil’s personal sense of redemption and optimism enables him to transcend any wished-for happier endings, however.
There is also a sense of place on this CD: Australia, remote and dry and nearly forgotten, but more alive than gardens and city squares:
We’ll swim just like your younger days / Like we did when you lived here
And you’ll dive under the waves /And disappear
You surface on the other side / Laughing as you flick your hair
Wipe water from your eyes /And you say how good it feels
To be alive
A sense of place, just as each of his song-narrative has a sense of self. These are not anonymous songs; rather, they are songs with a strong perspective, even if that perspective is searching and self-questioning. Yet, Neil’s honesty and self-analysis is so clear, the messages become universal, applicable to all places, all selves. A sign of great writing.
The album begins with one of my favorite of Neil’s songs, Across The Water. It is written to his mother (which makes its placement as the opening song quite apropos), but is not a mere homage. It is a tight and controlled set of observations about being a sailor’s wife:
You always did your best for him
And I know he made you smile
He wasn’t quite the man you’d hoped he’d be
Perhaps you knew that all the while
She gave him strength, but it was a strength of proportion and context as well as being able to dream even while remaining awake.
Dreams weave through the entire recording. Musing on “what if” lyrical riffs, humble musings that often raise questions without posing answers. But there is something about Neil’s music that makes me think he knows far more answers than he’s letting on.
It is unusual to review a finished work to which I’ve been privy to so many early drafts. One of the cool things about Macjams is that artists share their early mixes, initial musical ideas, song beds in need of a solo instrument section, etc. I’ve heard most of the songs included on Neil’s marvelous collection as first drafts. I loved his lyrics, his strength of conscience, his devastating honesty. But I had always thought his tracks were overly compressed, to the point of sounding harsh and oppressive, sometimes to the detriment of the music and message. Not so on his CD. The tracks have been smoothed out, are mellow and thought-through and transparent, yet retain a homespun sense. Knowing Neil’s journey, it is a sound I cherish.
I also thought that listening to 13 tracks of Neil’s music, many of which sounded quite similar, wouldn’t hold my attention. I was wrong. The order of the tracks combined with his remixing has resulted in a wonderful listening experience.
Although a few tracks include real drumming, most employ MIDI drumming, which never sets well in my ears. MIDI drums usually lack the subtle timing changes a real percussionist naturally uses. Neil overcomes this, for the most part, by choosing just the right variety of sounds. Plus, he never resorts to MIDI loops, but plays the drum lines like a real drummer might, with differing fills and shifting accents. Because everything else is real instruments, the MIDI drumming never pulls focus.
I enjoyed the touches of organ, the organic bass playing, the crisp acoustic guitar rhythms. But the highlight of this CD is in the writing, the lyrics, the interplay between singer and his life which he is setting to song. “Who’d be buying this land of dreams we’ve lost?” he asks (The Big Dry). Everyone, I hope. A special recording. Highly recommended.
Contributing musicians include: Ann Cozean, Hugh Mohr (rtcooper), Thor Olilverson (thoddi), Fran Dagostino (ziti), Alf Solti (alfalpha), Mike Watkins (kevmikwa), and Jan Porter (Neil’s wife).
Across The Water
Clouds Across The Sky
Follow The Black Line
Things Must Change
Saying So You’ll Know
Well Enough Alone
The Big Dry
“It really sounds great. While many songs cover heavy subjects it all comes off uplifting and thought provoking. Everything sounds really well mastered, presenting all the various wonderful performances by Neil and his fellow contributors in a rich and clear sonic space. Much enjoyed, and the CD and insert look good too.”
— Peter Greenstone