Titling her third album Sweet Heart Rodeo might appear a calculated risk but singer-songwriter Dawn Landes, Kentucky-born and Brooklyn-based, swears she didn’t have the Byrds’ pioneering 1968 country-rock classic “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” in mind. Instead she was thinking of her great-grandmother’s beau, a young man who ran away to join the rodeo during the Great Depression and decades later inspired Landes to write the title song. A rodeo theme runs throughout the record, as Landes compares the ups and downs of romance to the rigours of bull riding.
“I guess you could say each song is like its own bull,” the twenty-eight-year-old deadpans, “each ride its own love-story…you know, trying to hang on to a wild thing isn’t always graceful.” Her feminist approach proved problematic when it came to turning up images of feisty cowgirls for the artwork. “There aren’t many female bull riders,” she admits. And with good reason. “I went to a few rodeos as research. They don’t stay on those things very long.”
Though she grew up in Louisville her perfect variations on country and folk music have all been recorded in her adopted hometown of Brooklyn. The culture clash of urban and rural traditions is an intriguing base for Landes’ material and audience. She spent most of 2008 touring with a variety of country/folk and indie-rock stalwarts like The Tindersticks, Midlake, Josh Ritter, Jason Isbell (of the Drive by Truckers), Alexi Murdoch and the Swell Season, to name a few. And though she might recognize kindred spirits in contemporaries like Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Landes is blessed with a voice as pure and ringing as any folk or country diva.
The voice has always been there, but it’s taken a while to be heard. Her first self-released records, simply called Dawn’s Music and the EP two three four effectively proved her talent, but it was 2008’s acclaimed Fireproof that revealed it to the world. Around that time her splendid bluegrass cover of Peter Bjorn and John’s instant classic “Young Folks,” performed with an elderly group of Texans called The WST Band (“It stands for ‘we sorta tried’”), became a YouTube favorite. “Straight Lines,” one of her best-known songs, sound-tracked in adverts on both sides of the Atlantic. Here it accompanied a cute campaign to encourage urban cycling. There it promoted Axe, the local equivalent of Lynx and the preferred perfume of adolescent males. Its writer was bemused. “The same song was used to promote bicycling in a childlike way and men’s deodorant in a sexual way. What does that mean?” she once pondered. For a while she lived in France, learning to love Gainsbourg, Brassens and Francoise Hardy, and spent her time in Paris at the most unlikely joints. “I found myself in a lot of situations I wouldn’t have been invited to otherwise,” she says, “I played a lot of parties, fashion parties, one in a hotel where there was a bubble bath filled with champagne!” As you can imagine this is a world she doesn’t usually inhabit.
Since her last release, Landes (her surname has two syllables) has finished fitting out her own studio, Saltlands in Brooklyn. “I actually built it! Some friends and I put up the walls and floated the floors,” she declares proudly, christening it with the recording of Sweet Heart Rodeo. Again working with regular collaborator, drummer and all-rounder Ray Rizzo, her recording outfit was completed by guitarist Josh Kaufman and bassist Annie Nero, a couple (of musicians) that she met on the road. A cover of Kaufman’s composition, the charming, gentle “Dance Area” fits perfectly alongside Landes’ own material.
“Sweet Heart Rodeo” is packed with fine tunes, again beautifully sung. The opener “Young Girl” ponders gender stereotyping—competitive boys, jealous girls—over a reductive and distorted keyboard riff. The deceptively cutting “Romeo” berates a certain someone who ruined one of Landes’ birthdays by standing her up. No wonder she borrows a hook from “16 Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s fifties nugget of resignation. The haunting ‘Money In The Bank’ marries down-home hippie wisdom (‘the night before you die, what are you gonna buy?’) to a glorious chorus bolstered by a wistful French horn. Dawn even drums on an unlikely cover of Margo Guryan’s already unlikely “Love,” a 1968 collision of cool jazz and nascent psychedelia. “She’s amazing, one of these unsung geniuses like Vashti Bunyan was, who made one fabulous record then disappeared,” she says of the woman behind the lost classic “Take A Picture.”
Rizzo’s idiosyncratic harmonica style (“kinda cloudy—the opposite of ethereal”) boosts the quirky “Wandering Eye,” a rare song that combines sex and travel without causing offence, while “Little Miss Holiday” imagines a conversation between Jodie Foster and the teenage hooker that inspired her character in Scorsese’s unhinged “Taxi Driver.” It’s tender rather than bleak. “Brighton” is a tribute to a magical day in that great Southern (English) town, yet it could hardly sound more American, Appalachian even. “I hope I captured it in the song,” she says. By the album’s conclusion, the wobbly wedding march of “All Dressed In White,” you’ll probably be thinking of giving love a try. Even if it does hurt when you fall off.