Birds didn’t evolve flight for the lark of it. They need it to live, to eat and to not get eaten; migration is escape, not travel. Even so, one can measure these things, and it’s established now: birds do love to fly. Survival finds an answer, and method, in joy. And we can imagine that their desire to fly responds to both these urgencies—from danger, for joy—and feels them conjoined. Conjoined desires run through Laura Dunn’s stunning debut album, The Dreamkeeper and a Gun. Dunn’s voice trembles with joy and pain, love and longing, and her songs seem equally to cast off and celebrate the weight they carry. Each of these gently plucked ballads gives shape to a species of wanting, and wanting here tunes its sting into song.
The first time I saw Laura Dunn perform it was at a rowdy poetry reading in Missoula, Montana, which also featured a trans burlesque show and a papier-mâché salmon playing bass clarinet. She was the smallest thing on stage that evening. Her banjo and her lobababaoked a little twiggy when she first walked out. Her voice, when she introduced herself, was slight. But it was a trick: Her music is far fiercer than first impressions might suggest. Her songs armor themselves in air and lightness, but there is nothing twee about Laura Dunn, and each song carries a vial of poison, which may be the honest source of its light. “When I was a soldier,” she sings on “Little Plastic Soldiers,” an eerie, patient masterpiece, “no one saw me,” but the lament is also a warning: unseen soldiers are the most dangerous, and the blows this album strikes seem to come out of nowhere, as if they’d hid in the brightness of the melodies. “When I was a mother, I blew up the house we made…Not good at love, just good at burning up.” She plays a slow banjo that seems to be listening to its own soft unwinding. She draws out the instrument’s familiar twang until we can hear the metal sharpness that had been within its sound all along, and then she flints a new kind of brightness against its edge.
But these are also songs of friendship and love and hopefulness. In each, there’s a will to break through the cool space between us and a cautious belief in music’s ability to reach out and touch. “In a letter later, you said 'I should have kissed you in that storm.' If I’d have wrote back, I’d have said 'what good is a kiss for?' Remember I reached out my hand, but no drop can pass through skin. If each of us is an island, how do we let more than the cold in?” The album is intent on answering that question, or trying to, naming the cold and inviting us to come in from it. “I’d be a model citizen if your city would let me in,” she sings on “Boyswan,” her ode to friendship and tenderness and taking good care of one another. “These arms could be your pond.” But this is music that also understands the facts of solitude and celebrates them even as it seeks to overcome them: her “Apocalypse Love Song” goes, “through this burning world we go, but if we didn’t struggle alone, our souls would be couch potatoes.” Here again, survival finds a method in joy. This voice wants company, wants love, wants to overcome a core of loneliness, but singing out it discovers the pleasures of solitude. Loneliness hurts still, but company can be beckoned with new strength and new joy. That’s the kind of folk music “The Dreamkeeper and a Gun” gives us: music for your people and music for yourself. --Mark Mayer