Dylan Blackthorn’s album small flames begins with the harmonica and accordion fueled rave-up “Played by the Numbers”. His calculated yet credible vocal delivery never obscures the quality lyrics underlying this and later performances. The solid structure he adopts for the songwriting here and elsewhere serves the release well; one of the unique qualities of this song collection is how so many of the tracks sound like they are on the verge of running off the rails yet never do. This artfully controlled chaos is one of small flames’ greatest strengths. The focus he exhibits here and on other performances is another strong suit of the release. Blackthorn never succumbs to self-indulgence; the seemingly disparate instrumental choices come together well and gives a compelling texture to the song.
Nyla Song joins Blackthorn and his cohorts for the second cut “Candlelight”. It is quite a contrast with the opening track. Her singing is a stylized yet emotional performance and the arrangement meshes well with her phrasing. None of the tracks included on small flames are over-long and the contrast between the opener and this number mentioned before is an early indication Blackthorn has a strong understanding of how to order the album’s thirteen songs for maximum effect. “Silver Halo Blues” has a hard-hitting combination of accordion and harmonica with a rambunctious Blackthorn vocal. The observations contained in Blackthorn’s words are pointed and very individual; he has shaped them around the edgy musical attack with an inspired punch.
There are daring rhymes scattered throughout “The Reindeer Waltz” and the hypnotic sway of its musical arrangement holds your attention from the first. Blackthorn tackles substantive subject matter and abandons much of his poetic touch in favor of a more literal approach. It is impossible to name another modern act making such extensive use of accordion and, if you think you would soon tire of it, you are wrong. The inventiveness of the accordion work is endless. They often use it in a manner similar to guitar in other styles; it is an often “lead” instrument capable of carrying their plethora of melodies.
Fiddle adds a wider range of dimensions to the band’s songs. “Folk Magick” is a perfect example of its effect on Blackthorn’s songwriting and brings a sharp manic edge to the arrangement. I love the go-for-broke attitude running through so much of this album; there’s absolutely no fear present during small flames. “Starry Secrets” is a theatrical finale for the collection and brings the full force of his musical firepower to bear on developing its introduction.
It is one of the few moments on small flames where you hear Dylan Blackthorn reaching for specific effects but never in a ham-fisted fashion. It is a final reminder, as well, of the album’s production values. small flames has a vibrant sound enveloping listeners. It is difficult for me to believe many 2021 releases will match the relentless imagination powering these tracks and fewer still will make a deeper impact. Dylan Blackthorn’s creativity packs quite a wallop on small flames.
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