I recall reading a scathing review of Dakota Suite’s 1998 LP, Songs For a Barbed Wire Fence (I believe it was in the NME) which lambasted Dakota Suite and particularly lead singer/guitarist Chris Hooson for being a miserable fellow as well as a miserable songwriter. When I heard the record, I wasn’t too impressed with what I heard, yet the review severely misrepresented Hooson’s songwriting and potential. While Songs For a Barbed Wire Fence is bleak and somewhat unformulated, it showed Hooson to have great songwriting capabilities and great similarity — in content and execution — to Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters.
Thus, I was greatly pleased to see that Dakota Suite’s Signal Hill found U.S. distribution through Badman, which is also home to Kozelek’s solo records. The label choice makes the RHP/Kozelek comparisons even more unavoidable — from Signal Hill‘s minimalist photographic cover art to its perpetually heartbroken brittleness. However, where Kozelek often chooses the straightforward, less polished road (his Ohio roots to blame no doubt), Hooson aims for a fuller sound that though influenced by American folk, is resolutely English — obviously well-studied in masters Drake, Marr and Richard Thompson.
From the outset, it is apparent that Signal Hill is not just a progression from Songs For a Barbed Wire Fence but a revolution. The epic “The Cost of Living” sensuously fuses Hooson’s timid acoustic guitar with Richard Formby’s resonant lap steel. Though where Kozelek would likely be satisfied with the dueling guitars, Hooson greatly expands the song, dousing the guitars in trumpet for the desolate chorus.
While “The Cost of Living” is my favorite track on the album (and one of my favorites in recent memory), it does not overwhelm the rest of the LP. Hooson’s songs are longing masterworks, sentimental and scared without being melodramatic. The production is clean and frill-free, wisely allowing cello, piano and violin to supplement the guitars, placing the focus on Hooson’s isolated narratives and searing vocals. Also, Formby, who most notably added lap steel and 12-string to Spacemen 3’s swansong Recurring, is a revelation throughout this record. Thinking back to the gutting review of Dakota Suite and its dismissal of Hooson’s songwriting and emotional tenors, I realize that while Signal Hill occasionally seems like a seminar in misery, I also have the unmistakable feeling that I’m on a spiritual journey with Hooson. After Hooson fills with self-doubt — “And you’ll never know / What I hide, inside myself” (“Clean Linen Sheets”) — he is also eager to show the resolutions and his progressions, however minute: “Oh I can barely breathe, but you, you won’t let me drown / I can almost feel, but you won’t let me drown” (“Signal Hill”). This process of meditation and introspection, gingerly stepping forward from the despair, separates Hooson from many of his maudlin, but far less brave, singer-songwriter rivals. And listening in on his struggles, I occasionally feel guilty, like I’m eavesdropping on Hooson’s appointments with his shrink, but more often, Signal Hill makes me feel lucky for having shared in a record so intimate, desolate but silently expectant, that I can’t help but smile.