Dean Roberts
Be Mine Tonight


e Mine Tonight captures Dean Roberts at a singularly accomplished point in his eight-year investigation into a particular breed of distressed guitar signal. Forged in the cavernous clang and squeal of New Zealand’s Thela, Robert’s individual take on the prepared guitar refigures the guitar’s sounding surfaces as founts of reverberant chimes, gongs and rusted bells sustained through detuned strings and suspended in swatches of foggy reverb. Roberts’ early experiments, released under his own name or as White Winged Moth, cast his cracked gamelan guitar improvisations as a centerpiece to be surrounded by fragments of voice, piano, and the sputters of failing electronics in humming ambient dreamscapes. On his last release – 2000’s spiny, sophisticated And The Black Moths Play The Grand Cinema – Roberts merged the crystalline guitar scrape of his prior work with laptop twitch and an anchor of oblique songwriting that straddled the cracked folk of Tower Recordings with the dissonant clang of his post-punk roots. At once deeply coherent and sonically bracing, it signaled a new stage in Roberts’ career, one in which couched Roberts’ guitar talents in a context both comfortable and flexible.

Recorded in Bologna from December 2000 to December 2002, Be Mine Tonight emerges as a well-considered extension of the direction hinted at on And The Black Moths. More overtly linear and organic than its predecessor, Roberts’ newest offering finds its creator expanding both his sonic palette and refining his circuitous take on the singer-songwriter’s craft. The subtle purr of upright bass provides a loping harmonic foundation for the album’s multipart song suites, while the glisten of glass harmonica and humming harmonium drones wrap Roberts’ tender, rickety voice in celestial drones. A new tautness of composition prevails, owing as much to its long gestation as it does to engineer and first-time producer Valerio Tricoli’s painstaking editing and processing. While the chiming guitar strokes and yawning atmospherics are distinctly Roberts’, they are wound by Tricoli into careful arrangements that add an element of concision lacking in some of Roberts’ previous work while accentuating the guitarist/composer’s subtle use of space. It’s telling that Kranky has chosen to release Be Mine Tonight – the record fits comfortably among the label’s woozier releases, like a dark, moody hybrid of Low’s aching strum and the slow-dripping purr of Stars Of The Lid.

While Roberts’ latest takes the song proper as its formal touchstone, the primary sonic element remains the guitar in all its variants. Both Fringes Recordings label head Giuseppe Ielasi and Christian Alati contributed prepared guitar tracks to Roberts’ already rich collection of detuned shimmers and scratches, creating an enveloping three-guitar texture of uncommon depth and clarity. “All Pidgins Sent to War” establishes the guitar’s primacy from the first murmurs of its tripartite guitar drone, which grows with buzzing intensity before being cut by drummer Antonio Arrabbito’s rustling brushwork and a two-chord piano progression that wobbles as if recorded on disintegrating tape. An open-tuned acoustic guitar ushers in Robert’s thin and affecting voice, pushed into a space of cathedral-like resonance behind the rising foreground of sparkling guitar squall. Stretching into long, loose melodies and relishing in a certain haunted desperation, Roberts’ vocal arcs detach and reunite with his instrumental arrangements with dreamlike grace – one moment whimpering above delay-soaked shivers, the next cradled by careful feedback swells. Like the remainder of the album’s songs, “All Pidgins” unwinds instead of ending, thinning to a relaxed, scratchy loop of metal dragged on strings before reforming as a sprawling interlude led by clean-picked guitar figures and icy prepared guitar ornaments. The first suite concludes with “Disappearance on the Grandest of Streets,” which finds Roberts’ voice looming in still deeper space while a nervous tremolo strum gathers ringing chords and brushed drumheads to a heaving and quickly unraveled climax that shines and dissipates like fleeting shafts of sunlight between groaning rain clouds.

Both of the album’s final tracks, “Smash the Palace and What Nerves You Got” and “Letter to Monday,” adhere to more concise structures and less veering developmental tactics while retaining the crafted ambiance of the spacious opener. The former is the album’s most linear offering, a dreamy ballad steered by glassy arpeggios and nestled between silvery curtains of harmonics pulled from rapidly-brushed strings. Roberts ordinarily plaintive voice grows at once more unhinged and more assertive at the chorus – ”You’re the sole palomino / In this town” – above a sharp crack of snare drum; amidst the dense, rounded tones of much of Be Mine Tonight, the emergence of such sharpness and unflinching transparency yields the catharsis hinted at by the album’s long-simmering tensions. Suitably, the song soon dissolves, eliding into a warm morass of decaying notes and amplifier hum before crashing down in two cruelly punctuated blasts of noise. “Letter to Monday” reprises the central elements of the preceding tracks – seeping strums, a blurry halo of reverb, Roberts’ gently cracked voice – with sensitivity and aplomb, building from a trickle to a slow-surging mass of intertwined guitar strands and a nimbly brushed martial beat and receding finally to an eerily still rustle.

Well worth the three-year wait since And The Black Moths, Be Mine Tonight offers substantial testimony to Dean Roberts’ continued musical growth. Its three songs offer an elegant reconciliation between song and improvisation in a way that highlights Roberts’ acclaimed textural nuance and a well-cultivated sense of form and arrangement. Here experimentalism and careful song craft work hand in hand to create a reciprocal relationship in which the destabilizing devices of improv and the rattled heart of Roberts’ songwriting intensify one another to captivating result. The music is at once confidently presented and inwardly anxious, its forms open to subtle or sweeping changes in sonic or emotional tenor – from confident crescendo to the uneasy mortality of the plucked string.


Reviewed by: Joe Panzner

Reviewed on: 2003-11-17

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