David Ross MacDonald,
Far From Here
(independent, 2004)

From the first notes of Far From Here, we know that David Ross Macdonald can play guitar. His strong-yet-sensitive fingerpicking is one of the strongest things about this CD.

Best-known as the drummer for the Australian band, the Waifs, Macdonald was widely praised for his 2003 album of guitar instrumentals, Southern Crossing. Stepping forward as a solo artist, playing an instrument other than drums, must have been a courageous move for him. On this release, he ventures further into the world of the singer-songwriter, adding vocals and lyrics to his exceptional guitar work.

The venture, for me, isn't altogether successful. I do love his voice -- a slightly gravelly Australian drawl -- and I understand his artistic intent, but generally I felt that the songs fell short of their goal.

I found it hard at times to follow the stories Macdonald tells with his lyrics, which include detailed and ambitious stories of seafaring tragedy ("The Pearl") and sawmill towns and introspective reflections based on relationships ("Serpentine," "Draw Me In"). Most of the songs have a melancholic edge to them, which isn't necessarily bad, but which can seem particularly bleak if the lyrics and melodies are at all unfocused.

On the positive side, I was reminded of Bruce Cockburn's early CDs such as Salt, Sun & Time. Macdonald has a similar affinity for the guitar and a similar approach to it, and his lyrics aim for the same poetic detail as Cockburn's. Also, Macdonald uses unusual jazz chords and voicings that add musical interest.

The album is beautifully recorded, produced by Macdonald with engineers Shane O'Mara and Chris Thompson. Macdonald is joined by musicians Tony Floyd on drums, Stephen Hadley on acoustic double bass, Justin Brady on mandolin, bass and chromatic harmonicas, Kate Burke on accordion and fiddle, and Stephen Falk on marimba.

Just when I'd given up on the possibility of an upbeat song in this collection, along came "Boston," a lovely instrumental number which has the optimism and simplicity that the rest of the tracks lack. Throughout Far From Here, I kept hoping for one or two really memorable songs -- with melodies just a shade more simple and singable -- with a clear main idea. "Boston" confirms that David Ross Macdonald can write in an inspiring and warm style. It would be worth pairing that kind of instrumental with a strong lyric and a catchy melody.

- Rambles
written by Joy McKay
published 20 August 2005

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