…. a small-big wonder! These are the words with which this article ends, but I cleverly decided to put them at the beginning to try and get your attention. A cheap trick maybe, but raise your hand if you have ever heard of Sheep, Dog & Wolf.
Behind this moniker there is Daniel McBride, a young man from New Zealand, who with “Two-minds” is at his second record and whose artistic identity is perfectly sketched in the opening track “Months”, three minutes of sound brushstrokes scattered, but able to paint a fairly faithful portrait: we find in fact stratifications, minimalist structure, soft progressions, a delicate falsetto that punctuates the pauses and gaps until reaching in the stratification to a choral polyphony. In short, it is a modus operandi in which the writing is deeply intertwined with the arrangement. The melodic lines and harmonies seem to find their own raison d’être only within the musical structure created by the artist and it comes naturally to think that the compositions were not born as bare demos, but rather as pieces already well defined in McBride’s head. The result could be defined as a sort of chamber singer-songwriter, where “non-pop” influences (classical, contemporary or jazz) are used in synergy with an author’s writing and sensibility, resulting in a decidedly personal hybrid.
But before talking about the rest, let’s take a step back to briefly talk about the artist.
Daniel McBride, originally from Wellington, is an author and multi-instrumentalist with an academic background in saxophone and composition. He made his debut in 2013 at the age of just 17 with the EP “Ablutophobia” recorded entirely by himself in his bedroom and self-released and then followed it up in 2014 with his first proper album, “Egospect”, also self-recorded but released by independent label Lil’ chief Records. Both records were very well received by the local press because of the peculiar mix of the above described classical compositional approach and songwriting.
However, seven years passed between the first album and ‘Two-Minds’; a time that McBride himself does not hide being a very troubled period due to physical and mental health problems: ‘The album was written during a period of chronic physical and mental illness; it’s a document of that time. But I still look at ‘Two-Minds’ as a positive statement – it’s about healing as much as it is about illness, and the rays of light that can shine even in the depths of it’.
It is clear from the author’s words that the long and troubled interval between releases has given us a more mature and aware artist, and listening confirms this feeling. The new album confirms once again McBride’s productive and executive autarky, even if the final result is a carefully crafted record, far from the low-fi sound normally associated with DIY aesthetics.
A characteristic that immediately emerges when listening to “Two-minds” is that it is complex but not complicated music, which – even in the barest and minimal moments brings into play a myriad of elements and suggestions – simplifies everything, preferring synthesis to accumulation.
Let’s come to the tracks: we have already said about the opening track “Moths”, but to pick up what has already been written, we have to add that the airy and suspended pace, together with the style of the singing, can only make happy the lovers of Robert Wyatt.
The title track is perhaps the pivotal track of the album, not only for its quality but also because the title “bipolar” and the lyrics deal with the artist’s psychic discomfort; the song, supported by an odd and jumping rhythm, develops in a magical interplay between piano, flute, strings, synths and, above all, amazing vocal harmonies that, by the way, recall what Panda Bear did in his masterpiece “Person Pitch”, although in a completely different musical context.
In “Cyclical”, the title of the song seems to allude to the piano pattern on which a ballad adorned by a lush choral and orchestral arrangement develops, while “Could’ve” is a delicate and poignant ballad mottled at the end by a distorted electric guitar and whose vocal interpretation recalls the most intimate Bon Iver.
The oblique melodies of the orchestral ballads of “Fine” and “Periphescence”, one characterized by an unprecedented, almost underwater, electronic pulse and the other by a superb arrangement of jazzy winds, recall not only Wyattian reminiscences but also those of a great (and forgotten) outsider of the 2000s scene, DM Stith.
The jumping rhythms of “Deep Crescents” and “Feelings” suggest an unlikely cross between the Sufjan Stevens of “Illinois” and Canterbury sound.
To close this “sonic treasure hunt” we note a general affinity more in method (orchestral richness, refinement of the arrangements, jumping rhythms and sophisticated vocal lines) than in result with another transversal artist who has emerged in recent years, the Englishman Cosmo Sheldrake.
There are a lot of references to other artists, I know; does this means that Sheep, Dog & Wolf is a derivative and impersonal artist? No, it’s really the opposite and I purposedly wrote down those names just to highlight the real miracle of this record: that is the ability to be remembered, beyond the suggestions (be them perceived or real), exclusively as a record by Sheep, Dog & Wolf, as in a game of mirrors in which the original images are distorted until they are no longer recognizable and to create a new and completely different image that remains impressed in the mind of the observer. And if we look in the mirror what we see is … (see top)