Essential New Music: Dean Roberts’ “Not Fire”

Photo by Denis Laner

A dozen years separate Not Fire from Dean Roberts’ previous album, Uneasy Flowers, which he released under the name Autistic Daughters. Given the span of time, perhaps the most surprising thing about this new work is the sturdiness of the thread connecting it to its predecessor. Both were pieced together from recordings made all around Europe and the Antipodes. Necks keyboardist Chris Abrahams and sound manipulator Valeri Tricoli appear on both, and certain musicians who play on Not Fire have played with others who were Autistic Daughters. And both records impart a similar experience, which is that if you listen to them closely, they seem to get further away. 

It turns out that while Roberts’s pace of recording flagged, he never stopped; some songs on Not Fire have been in his live repertoire since 2008. He just got busy with other things, like teaching art and composing dance-performance soundtracks. Quite likely, the passing of time contributes to the perfectly pulled-apart sound of this music. While it contains all the necessary elements to be a fairly straightforward singer/songwriter album, they have been arranged so that the scale seems all wrong. Guitars peek out from way behind the drums; a piano and a slide guitar seem to be conversing from different rooms in the same house.

On album centerpiece “Heron,” the backing vocals cut loose from Roberts’ singing and strumming to dip and wheel and dematerialize like ghosts checking in and out from another dimension. These disorienting influences correspond to words that linger over vivid memories of old New Zealander talk shows and much less lucid depictions of people trying to sort each other out face-to-face. In that respect, Not Fire feels very reflective of a present in which not much works out and things don’t fit together.

—Bill Meyer