STEVE NOONAN – Dreamland (own label Z1EHA26A)

DreamlandTwin Cities singer/ songwriter Steve Noonan is set to release his second, full-length album, Dreamland, on January 29th. An industry veteran, Noonan has been honing his craft for decades. Aside from his dedication to the creative process as a musician and songwriter, Noonan has built up quite the resume on the other side of the boards as well. He famously worked with Prince on the production of highly acclaimed albums such as Diamonds and Pearls and Love Symbol. Noonan’s artistic direction is all his own, however, and Dreamland sees the songwriter continuing on the path he forged with 2015’s I Could Be Anywhere.

With Dreamland, Noonan is able to present an earnestly thoughtful collection without undermining the everyman charm which emanates from his vocal delivery. It’s a fine line to walk, and one which has notably been trod by artists like Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen. Noonan’s calling card is the 12-string guitar, and its utilization here as the singer’s weapon of choice comes as little surprise.

In fact, the instrument – in its electric variant – is the first thing the listener hears once the needle drops on Dreamland. Three chords are strummed solo, as if calling the band to action, before the full ensemble kicks in for album opener, ‘Either Way’. While the influence of classic acts from the 70s and 80s on Noonan’s music have been no secret, the aesthetic of Dreamland is slick with the punchy, compact presentation of a great 90s band.

90s as an adjective comes with its own set of implications, but this isn’t to say that Dreamland sounds like an Alice In Chains record. Rather, the album’s atmosphere brings to mind the output of some of the great alternative/power pop bands of the decade. Such acts include Counting Crows, The Wallflowers – traces of Jakob Dylan present in the occasional vocal throughout – and Gin Blossoms, with the common thread being well-produced pop-rock that places an emphasis on songwriting.

‘Either Way’ tackles the latter head-on, taking on a concept that can be tricky to convey effectively. Generally speaking, the concept in question is optimism. Specifically, the tune acts as a sort of pep talk set to music. This is another fine line to walk, as buoyancy as it pertains to the genre is a potent ingredient, and too much of the stuff can make for hackneyed work.

Fortunately, not only does Noonan manage to avoid coming off as disingenuous with the number, he also manages to conjure up some genuine insight – an impressive feat given the often unwieldy nature of such sentiments. One element to which listeners could chalk this up is the acknowledgment of the negative, and ultimately, of reality. Empty-eyed platitudes generally fall flat without the recognition of real and present issues, and what is intended as support can come across as patronizing if not approached with a certain degree of objectivity.

The message of ‘Either Way’ is not necessarily that everything is going to work out just fine, it quite literally is that “this could go either way”. The value lies in the assertion that, yes, while a situation may be dire, the assumption of risk is often the only way forward. As Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”.

It is this type of attention to detail which endows Dreamland with an inherent credibility from a songwriting perspective, and it’s a trend which continues throughout the record. The concepts are well thought out, not simply thrown together indiscriminately for the sake of churning out a song. Each detail of Dreamland has been meticulously considered, and each element has its place.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the album’s production. Indeed, before sufficient time has passed for conceptual analysis of the songs themselves, one can’t help but note just how exceptional this collection sounds aesthetically. The title track is a great point of reference for how well the band sits together in the mix throughout the record. Chris Durst’s production and mixing make this thing shimmer, and it’s telling when someone with Noonan’s background trusts you to handle the technical side of an album’s creation.

There is a loose, conceptual feel which ties Dreamland together, while giving the tracks’ atmosphere room to evolve in accordance with what they seek to accomplish. Some of the album’s most visceral moments occur when Noonan shifts into a minor key and takes to airing grievances.

Tracks that fit this mold include ‘It’s All Gone Wrong’, ‘One More Second Chance’, and ‘Calm Me Down’. These numbers recall some of the more engaging moments on Paul Stanley’s 2006 solo effort, Live to Win, which saw the rocker applying a greater emphasis on songwriting than was customary in his work with KISS.

‘Calm Me Down’ in particular brings an excitement to the proceedings by way of a palpable tension. The execution of the closing number is impressive in the nuance by which it is able to effectively articulate its rudimentary subject matter, that being the idea of overwhelming frustration.

Much in the same way as opener, ‘Either Way’, ‘Calm Me Down’ is able to successfully convey its basic idea by way of restraint rather than heavy-handedness. Just as the former needed to engage the negative in order to convey the positive, the latter has to acknowledge a vulnerability in order to believably convey a rapidly developing danger.

With an ace band and superb production – the recording of the drums, in particular, is a joy to behold – Steve Noonan has found the ideal means by which to implement his creative vision. The devil is in the details, and the nuances, subtlety, and ultimately, the restraint, exercised throughout Dreamland play a significant role in making it a rich musical experience which bears revisiting several times over.

Cameron Gunnoe

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‘A Mile Long’ – in the studio:

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