CD Review of Turning by Dan Israel
Recommended if you like
Peter Case, Pete Droge, Greg Brown
Dan Israel: Turning

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


innesota named him its Songwriter of the Year in 2006 – topping a crowded field that included Dan Wilson – and he’s shared stages with everyone from Spoon to Rick Springfield, but Dan Israel has yet to achieve the sort of name-brand status enjoyed by some of his peers. Given that Turning is his ninth release, we can pretty much set the odds of Israel joining the Next Big Thing ranks at nil – but even if this isn’t, in the words of the album’s press kit, “the album that finally turns heads and makes the world sit up and take full notice of Dan Israel,” he seems to have made a pretty comfortable home for himself between the cracks, and these songs provide 14 fine examples why.

A leading light of the Minnesota music scene, Israel has assembled some of the area’s best-known talents for added color, including the Jayhawks’ Marc Perlman, Son Volt’s Dave Boquist, and Semisonic’s John Munson. The spotlight is all Israel’s, however, and he basks in it; Turning is a roots-rock tour de force, diverging early and often from the somber sepia tones of stereotypical folk fare.

He plays his most traditional card first, opening with the guitar-and-violin “Triangle,” a quick little number that suggests the listener is in for a long visit to Greg Brown/John Gorka territory. Then, having gotten that out of his system, Israel visits pretty much every spot on the (admittedly small) adult-alternative map – the breezy “Counting on You,” featuring sweet backing vocals from Jenny Fraser, has shades of Steve Earle; “Never Go Away” recalls Randy Newman at his most nakedly emotional; the title track could be a Honeydogs B-side; so on and so forth – and does an admirable job of covering all his bases.

Like a lot of his peers, Israel wasn’t blessed with the world’s most powerful singing voice, but what he lacks in range, he more than makes up for with warmth and personality. He doesn’t hit the notes so much as surround them with his faded flannel vocals, and he makes good use of his supporting cast – particularly the female backing vocalists, including Fraser, Laurie Lindeen, Janey Winterbauer, Jessy Green, and JoAnna James. And though he isn’t immune to folkie hand-wringing over the state of the world (“Song for Africa”), at least he does it well – and puts his money where his mouth is: a portion of the album’s sales are being donated to Save Darfur.

The songs ultimately don’t bring many new things to the crowded Americana table, but there’s no denying that Israel is one of the few performers working in the genre who can consistently transcend its limitations. Turning won’t replace your Jayhawks CDs, but it’ll fit alongside them quite comfortably.

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