April 13, 2017 by Francis Gehman
Shakespeare and the Velvet Underground. Shaken, not stirred. The cityscapes that Dusty Santamaria conjures up are refuges for both refuse and revelation where the low and high aspects of our spirits (and, by extension, our culture) co-mingle in a lovers’ dance. His songs, poetry, and paintings are filled with religious imagery, classical references, and the smoky, yellow light that spills into the street, bubbling up from the bottom crust through the cracks in the fabric of our society. “Symbols, images, and surrealist dreams- My Mind’s a junkyard,” Dusty laments in “Shiverin, moanin, shaking, stoned,” the second song on the Sylvia Says EP. The characters that inhabit Santamaria’s cityscapes are restless, plagued by vice, and haunted by an impending sense of emptiness. Everyone is looking for an escape though they know they must return to the emptiness. Everyone is looking for meaning though they know modern reality is cruel and mechanical. Above all, everyone is looking for love… with only fleeting moments of tenderness afforded.
Musically, the Sylvia Says EP is one of those fleeting moments. The sounds are generally soft and soothing, focusing mostly on Dusty’s acoustic guitar and voice. It’s over too soon. Dusty’s voice is relaxed and familiarly conversational at times, passionately precise in diction at others. But it’s the simplicity of the first line that sets the tone for the album. “Bring a little water, Sylvia,” Dusty offhandedly requests. The narrator’s fondly familiar relationship with the character Sylvia is evident in the absence of formal politeness and the way he pronounces her name, almost completely dropping the last letter “a” and turning a three syllable name into two. The request itself is a simple one. He’s not inconveniencing her, and he’s not expecting much. The listener (and the reviewer), however, should be careful to avoid the trap of attaching meaning to the symbols and images- sometimes beautiful, sometimes violent- that permeate the music. Santamaria makes it clear from the start that this sort of analytical appropriation is a cop out and will be in vain because the symbols themselves have no continuity of meaning. They are just the static of an active imagination prone to nostalgia. For example, the water of the first verse, a symbol of life, is immediately turned on its head in the second verse when “some sleepwalking guru that guided me here just jumped into the river and died.” It’s not the first time Dusty’s started off an album with a river of death. His 2014 release Now That I’ve Stopped Killing opens with this verse:
Broken bodies and dead flowers run through the river of my hometown
Where fear is a law, confusion’s a creed, and apathy wears a crown
I took the blood, the filth, and the slime and painted myself as a clown
Then took the midnight train into infinity
and never turned my head to look back around
While Dusty’s music is heavily influenced by country and traditional folk, his soul has always struck me as being at home in pure urban chaos. I often think of him when I’m in the seedier downtown parts of a city. It seems to be in his nature to see beauty and possibility where others see starkness and entrapment. Part of this lies in his willingness to be struck by the smaller things in life such as on “Haunted Feeling” off the Sylvia Says EP where the narrator is driven to “pick a flower from the garbage.” The apparent reference to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” here doesn’t seem to be something Santamaria is trying to shy away from. The album has plenty of lyrical references to other songwriters, most obviously Lou Reed and the Velvet Undergound as one might have already guessed from the title of the EP. Like the symbols and classical references, one gets the feeling that the lines from songwriting royalty are just what’s passing through his head. He puts them down in order to move the songs along, in order to get to the lines only he could write that are what make his music truly worth listening to. It almost seems as if he’s just observing his own thoughts without attaching to them or, for that matter, attaching to anyone else on this album.
The last song on the EP, “New Year’s Night,” is an ode to the road Dusty seems to know is his only home. The backing “doo-wop” female vocals and the simplicity of the songwriting serve to bring this EP back full circle. The whole thing seems very intimate. There is a sadness about the things he knows he misses out on by choosing the path he does, but even through the teardrops there is the brightness of someone living the way they want to.
Overall, this EP is not a drastic change from the rest of Santamaria’s catalogue. His previous release, Now That I’ve Stopped Killing, had a few songs that were written in more of a linear, confessional style. Those types of songs like “Rose Tattoo” or “Dark Eyed Girl” are absent on the Sylvia Says EP, but, despite that, this EP feels a bit more intimate. It also moves along well and doesn’t drag. There’s some rockers on here like “Underground (Party Dress).” It’s a well-written, well-rounded, and well-recorded EP from a mature songwriter who’s really found his stride and surely has more good things coming down the road.
Reviewed by Frank Meriwether