By Sarah French.
A scarecrow cowboy at dawn. Lonely footsteps on a creaky wooden floor. Cars speeding down an empty highway as smoke rises from a burning roadhouse. Phantom Threshold is the soundtrack to the movie you’ve always had inside of your head.
No one will ever accuse Steve Dawson of standing in one place long enough to let the moss grow under his feet. While other people were sheltering in place and trying to ride out the pandemic, Steve was locked away at his Henhouse Studio in Nashville, cooking up some new music. By the time the air cleared last summer, he’d written, played and recorded enough material for three new albums.
The first record, the recently released and critically acclaimed Gone, Long Gone explored Dawson’s love of roots music in the folk and blues tradition. A mixture of songs and instrumentals, it featured old friends like Allison Russell and Fats Kaplin.
Phantom Threshold is the second album in the series, and is an instrumental release that explores some very deep and elusive musical territory. In many ways, Phantom Threshold resumes the musical conversations started in Telescope, Steve’s pedal steel-based instrumental album from 2008. The core band, dubbed ‘The Telescope Three,’ in reference to that release, is comprised of Jeremy Holmes (bass),Chris Gestrin (keyboards), and Jay Bellerose (drums/percussion). The natural telepathy between the musicians can be heard throughout Phantom Threshold as they cook up an enticing blend of textured string and keyboard sounds. Recorded with an array of vintage tube amps, Dawson’s distinctive pedal steel sound is always in the forefront, vocalizing themes and defining parameters for the plethora of unusual instruments running from pump organ and accordion to the otherworldly marxophone (a kind of fretless zither played with hammers) and Moog synthesizer.
Guest musicians include Daniel Lapp, who added some beautiful violin and cornet accents to ‘Cozy Corner’ and ‘Tripledream,’ and Fats Kaplin who played fiddle and banjo on the title track as well as accordion on ‘The Waters Rise.’
Even though Phantom Threshold was recorded remotely, it expresses a spontaneity and looseness throughout as a well-developed group mind guides Dawson’s melodic excursions into some very adventurous musical territory. The album has an expansive Paris, Texas era Ry Cooder feel, replete with a pulsing psychedelic undercurrent that makes the whole affair flow together like an imaginary collaboration between John Ford and Federico Fellini. (Stagecoach meets Satyricon anyone?)
All of the tracks are Steve Dawson originals, except "The Waters Rise" a co-write with Fats Kaplin, and a woozy lysergic cover of The Beach Boys "You Still Believe In Me" written by Brian Wilson. The enigmatically titled new songs ("Twig Bucket", "Burnt End", "That’s how it goes in the Relax Lounge") reflect things seen and experienced in Memphis, where Steve spent a week last Spring at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio while Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Jason Isbell and Elvis Presley) mixed the record.
Phantom Threshold is best listened to from end to end as a complete experience. Like a great motion picture soundtrack, there’s a story arc that begins as "Cozy Corners" achieves liftoff with its mixture of sliding strings and celestial keyboards that owe as much to early seventies Pink Floyd as they do to John Fahey. Like a mildly psychedelic summer Saturday afternoon, musical themes appear, insinuate themselves, shimmer, fracture and flow away with a gentle tip of the hat as they make way for the next ideas to emerge. Phantom Threshold never lets up as it sketches out its vivid frontiers until finally Dawson’s collective musical are deconstructed with ‘Whirlwind,’ - an evocative, scratchy solo piece played on a Weissenborn with paper taped across the strings – that takes the listener home.
Historically, string based instrumental albums have been a tough sell. They’ve got to engage, express a variety of moods and keep the listener coming back for more. Phantom Threshold does all of this in spades. It is a triumph that plays to all of Steve Dawson’s considerable strengths and is destined to become one of the most enduring records in his already impressive discography.
'Dimes' From Steve Dawson's Album Gole, Long Gone