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David Okamoto: Review of "John Singer Sergeant"

Kirtland Records

A North Texas musician decided to go the extra mile on his latest release, borrowing from the world of art and employing some local star power. David Okamoto has a review.

Dallas indie rocker John Dufilho could have played it safe and just invited a few friends to contribute harmonies to his latest solo album. Instead, the leader of Dallas band The Deathray Davies surrenders the microphone on all 14 songs: He performs the instruments himself, but turns to such guest vocalists as Rhett Miller of Old 97’s, Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, Sarah Jaffe, Ben Kweller, and Salim Nourallah to bring out emotional wrinkles in his compositions that his own voice might otherwise iron out.

This album is packaged as the self-titled debut by John Singer Sergeant, a pseudonym based on the name of a noted 19th century American painter. It’s the most ambitious project to date by Dufilho, who at age 42, has emerged as a highly regarded low-fi pop hero - a title he deserves if only for giving us “Plan to Stay Awake,” the frantic gem recorded on 2005’s The Kick and The Snare.

In between helming The Deathray Davies and a twangier offshoot called I Love Math, Dufilho plays drums for the acclaimed psychedelic act The Apples in Stereo. What these bands have in common is an unvarnished charm and a melodic flair for ‘60s-inspired pop that veers from introspective intimacy to distortion-drenched urgency. Those same elements are at the heart of John Singer Sergeant: Hiding behind an alter-ego, as well as other singers, gives Dufilho a liberating vehicle to explore everything from the silky soul of “Dizzy Joy,” featuring Sir Earl Toon of Kool and the Gang, to jazzy, Tom Waits-style quirkiness with Rhett Miller on “My Own Worst Critic.”

In turn, Dufilho provides his guests an opportunity to venture outside of their comfort zones: Will Johnson of Centro-matic literally gets some breathing room on the ironically titled “Big Distortion,” crooning over a sparse arrangement that is the polar opposite of his band’s glorious racket. And on the Burt Bacharach-inspired “Gone in a Second,” local favorite Sarah Jaffe trades brooding for breezy with intoxicating results.

But the hardest hitting song on John Singer Sergeant is also its quietest. Spyche, the one-name Deep Ellum singer who once recorded a heart-breaking cover of the Grease staple “Hopelessly Devoted to You” in the driver’s seat of a moving van, strips a 2002 Deathray Davies song titled “It’s Hard to Run Uphill on Stilts” to its child-like essence, transforming it with a disarming blend of wonder and weariness.

In lesser hands, John Singer Sergeant would be a vanity project. But Dufilho turns it into a fearless exercise in humility, allowing other artists to shape, not just share, the sound of what ultimately comes across as a cool concept record instead of a mere tribute album.

David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo! in Dallas. His music reviews have previously appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, ICE magazine and the Dallas Morning News. You can watch live studio performances of songs from John Singer Sergeant on the KXTradio channel on YouTube.