CD Review of The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room by Don Dixon

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The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: 125 Records
Released: 2006
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There’s an occasional tendency in the world of music for a perfectly good recording artist to suddenly find himself pigeonholed in the industry solely as a producer. You can see how it could happen. After all, who knows better how a musician should sound than another musician? But if you’re really good at twiddling the knobs, it’s not hard to quickly find yourself with more production work than you know what to do with…and the next thing you know, you release an album and people are, like, “Wow, I didn’t even realize that guy was a musician!”

It happened to T Bone Burnett, it happened to Jon Brion, and mark my words, it’s liable to happen to Butch Walker if he’s not careful. But, certainly, one of the most classic cases of musician-turned-producer-turned-musician-again is certainly that of Don Dixon.

Dixon began his musical career as a member of the North Carolina based group Arrogance, but after several very worthwhile grabs for the brass ring – including 1976’s Rumors and 1980’s Suddenly – the band gave up the ghost in 1983. Right around the time of their demise, however, Dixon began venturing into production work, manning the boards for Chris Stamey’s It’s a Wonderful Life and R.E.M.’s Murmur, following those with Let’s Active’s Cypress and the Connells’ Darker Days. His solo debut, bearing the mouthful of a title in Most of the Girls Like to Dance but Only Some of the Boys Do, emerged in 1985; the track “Praying Mantis” picked up some college airplay, but production work still continued to be his bread and butter. (Other key jobs over the years would include the Smithereens’ Especially for You and Green Thoughts, Matthew Sweet’s Inside, Guadalcanal Diary’s 2x4, Tommy Keene’s Songs from the Film, and Marshall Crenshaw’s Mary Jean & 9 Others.) All along, however, Dixon’s continued to record, perhaps mellowing somewhat over the years but settling into a definite folk-rock style, and his latest disc – which bears a title almost as unwieldy as his debut – ranks among his best work…which is a little ironic, given that he admits in the first line of the album’s liner notes that “a few years ago, I gave up on songwriting.”

What we have here is a concept album, revolving around the rooms of a house. (It’s kind of a giveaway with song titles like “Sunlit Room,” “Roommate,” “Kitchen,” “Secret Room,” and “Man on the Hall.”) Opener “In Darkness Found” begins, “Well, there’s no sparkle in your eyes / There’s something queer about this room / Everybody knows you passed away too soon,” thereby setting the tone for a decidedly melancholy track; a portion of the song borrows the melody from “Glory Hallelujah,” and it results in the only truly upbeat moment within the song. In fact, it really isn’t until the aforementioned “Roommate” – the album’s fourth track – that Dixon surges into the propulsive pop mode in which he’s a master.

But, really, how long can you play pop songs? Everyone grows up, and, as referenced in those opening lines, everyone dies, sometimes before their time. Life isn’t always easily summed up in a three-minute pop song. Dixon’s been hovering in a more despondent flight pattern for the last album or so (his last record, 2000’s The Invisible Man, featured a song entitled “Digging a Grave”), but that’s what age brings: a more realistic view of life and a loss of naiveté. The cello-laden “In a Politician’s Bed” shows a contempt for government, and “Kitchen” even manages to get in a dig at every revolutionary’s favorite target, Richard Nixon; you could probably even debate that the opening lines of “Secret Room” – “Two steps to the right / Look left and see the light” – have a political bent…but, mind you, even if they don’t, the song still features great bluesy guitar and a soaring chorus.

The album simultaneously closes and comes full circle with a duet between Dixon and his wife, the lovely and talented Marti Jones, on the Let’s Active song “Room with a View” (from Afoot); it appears to be the same version which appeared on the 2003 Let’s Active tribute album, Every Word, where it was only credited to Jones. Either way, however, it’s a lovely cover and a nice way to end the proceedings.

Don Dixon is older and wiser and, if you’ll pardon the pun, full of far less arrogance than when he began his musical career…but, then, so are his listeners. You might have a bit of hesitation about entering this Room, but once you’re inside and given its contents a chance to sink in, you’ll unpack your things and stay awhile.

~Will Harris