David Arn is a singer/songwriter based in Virginia. His music is mostly acoustic and strongly lyric driven, allowing his words to be clearly delivered with an authentic, gravelly voice that sounds full of life experience.
You can hear the influences of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan as well as the sophisticated lyrical style of Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, though his style is very much his own. He has previously released two full length albums, Postmodern Days and Walking To Dreamland (which I reviewed very favourably in 2015, read here), along with numerous singles.
This album, Traveler Tales, consists of fourteen songs and is a concept album very loosely based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, featuring fourteen first-person narratives from fourteen travelers on a common journey.
The album opens with the mid-tempo moody blues rock of We’re Not Broken – The Lover’s Tale. Set to a sturdy beat and R.E.M style clean picked electric guitar, it captures David at his most poetic and philosophical: “They say we’ll be judged for behaviour, till then payback’s in a corner chair, posing questions to a saviour who seems no longer there….”.
It builds to the understated but highly affecting chorus hook: “We’re not broken, only shattered.…”. David’s vocal delivery is full of character and nuance, pitched somewhere between Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. The classy, crisp backing vocals from Kerri Hardwick and Tyra Juliette serve as a nice contrast to David’s more earthy tone. A strong opening track and another fine addition to the Arn canon.
Fallen Bird – The Beggar’s Tale is set at a similar tempo and makes even more use of the contrast between David and his backing vocalists, creating a lovely blend on the chorus. Lyrically, it poetically captures the torment of unrequited love, or at least an unresolved romantic relationship, all the more poignant from his mature perspective.
With unflinchingly honesty and vulnerability he sings tenderly: “Look at me, past my prime, spinning rhyme about you, your fingerprints on my heart, but for love I must dust for clues….”. Special mention must go to the first class dobro guitar performed by Toby Wilson, which helps give the music its rootsy vibe and sonic colour.
His guitar skills come to the fore again on Thirteen Days – The Exile’s Day, this one a country folk ballad consisting of David’s anguished vocals, Wilson’s guitar and stand up bass. It’s a heart rending tale about the end of a relationship and the desolation that follows.
Wilson’s guitars weave a crystalline texture around Arn’s voice and lyrically, he turns the poignancy up to eleven: “Sleepless in our highway room, shadows cross the moon, memory has me bound with souvenirs from higher ground…”. It’s a song that captures Arn’s particular gift for love songs, this one imbued with an emotional depth that brought to mind Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.
Fourth track, Not Amused – The Wanderer’s Tale. is a complete contrast; a light hearted and highly entertaining country rock song with chugging pianos and more tasty steel guitar from Toby Wilson.
It shows a more playful side to Arn’s songwriting, displaying some dry wit whilst throwing in a few acerbic lines that ring true about those in power: “It seems every time I fall for the noble man, in the face of the poor he kicks more sand, he points the passer to the road where the trail goes cold….”. The chorus hook wryly captures how we smile through the pain: “I might have been grinning but I’m not amused.…”.
It’s Not Going To Kill Us – The Father’s Tale is a fine country ballad written from the perspective of a father worried about his daughter from afar. With dreamy echo-drenched steel guitar floating in the background, David expresses parental concern with customary sensitivity: “I may be miles away but I can read the signs…gonna fix your mind right even if I must talk you through the night….”. A lovely song.
This is mirrored by Mother’s Day – The Mother’s Tale. It features a guest artist taking the lead vocal duties, Ava Hart. David notes that this song has special relevance for Ava, a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum. She gives an enchanting performance here, augmented by mellifluous violin by Joni Fuller.
Over delicate acoustic guitar, Ava’s haunting voice compels from the powerful opening lines: “I’m always fighting an invisible war my prayers haven’t seen before…”. It portrays the purity of maternal love with succinct eloquence: “Little one, let me rock your soul…four in the morning, the ladder to your sleep is much too steep…”. Bringing to mind the Joni Mitchell classic Little Green, it works perfectly in the context of the album.
You Never Really Know – The Fool’s Tale is another ballad of consummate craftsmanship. Featuring an interesting Elvis-esque slapback delay on his lead vocal, David expresses how it’s love that gives life meaning and purpose: “You never really know technically which way you go… until you fall in love….” Some gorgeous female-sung harmonies and gentle violin enrich this touching country-folk ballad.
Black Dog – The Photographers Tale is another of the lyrical portraits he does so well. This one is about an aging photographer estranged from his family, finding solace in the memories of a lost love. The “black dog” of the title is a reference to Winston Churchill’s analogy for depression. You can read my previous full review of this song here.
Next, we come to the title track, Traveler – The Minstrel’s Tale. It starts out as an acoustic ballad then takes a turn into soul and jazz territory. It features warm, smoky electric piano, rich gospel-style backing vocals and, towards the end, some wonderful wailing sax courtesy of Ian Smith. He’s played for legends like Gladys Knight, Sister Sledge and The Temptations.
Similar unexpected sonic features await us on Keeping My Distance – The Veteran’s Tale. It appears to be a first person narrative of a veteran who finds himself homeless: “My home is in the East, I have no bed in the state I’m in, I’m walking twelfth street at midnight, feeling stuck within my skin.…”. The use of a subtle vocoder effect halfway through is a nice production trick that gives the track a modern edge. Another well crafted song with understated power and gravity.
Silently Drifting To Paradise – The Sinner’s Tale is the second appearance of Ava Hart, rather different in tone to her first. It’s a truly gorgeous song with a lilting vocal melody and magical, almost harp-like acoustic guitars. With a distinctly sensuous undertone (“Heaven used to wait at the top of your stairs”), it brought to mind the heady, intoxicating mood of The Sensual World by Kate Bush. The harmony on the superb chorus is positively spine-tingling and the dreamy, drifting strings are simply otherworldly.
Twelfth track St. Paul’s Chimes – The Bystander’s Tale might sound like a dead cert folk track with such a title but, in fact, is the album’s slow burning Americana rock epic. Starting out as an acoustic strummer, it finds David with a vocal effect akin to John Lennon on The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. The gritty, biting lead guitar has a Clapton-esque grandeur.
Love Is Free – The Writer’s Tale is one of the more Sixties influenced tracks here with not just the influence of Dylan but also a strong influence of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and Rubber Soul-era Beatles. The lyrics have a distinctly psychedelic glean in their eye with lines like: “We were a prism through which love flowed...”. The stop/start dynamics surrounding the title hook work well and it’s another very enjoyable song.
The album’s journey comes to a gentle and beautiful end with the achingly poignant When It’s Over – The Ex-Writer’s Tale. It’s folk-tinged Americana at its finest, an autumnal reflection on a relationship: “I love my freedom, time is moving slower but I hate that it’s not over when it’s over….”. Augmented by simple but elegant acoustic guitar and swirling strings, it completes this epic album in the most apposite way.
Overall, this is a wonderful collection of songs by David Arn that cover the many vicissitudes of the human condition. Having forged a refined poetic lyrical style and honed his musical craft over years, he’s developed into a songwriter of the highest class. He need not worry; not only is he not past his prime, Traveler Tales finds him at the peak of his powers.
VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10
Album released: Sept 8th
Visit his official website HERE