Three years ago (give or take), when Barbara Jean and Molly Dean decided to start playing together as Dusty Heart, fans of the Minnesota music scene were surprised and excited.
Surprised, because, frankly, nobody saw this coming. Barbara Jean is a divine multi-instrumentalist known for her ability with a banjo, a viola and a violin. Hailing from the North Shore (via Superior, Wisconsin), she is a brilliant singer/songwriter with a commanding knowledge of the in’s and out’s and intricacies of Americana music. Her Darker Than Blue album is one of the great highlights for local music in recent years. Molly Dean, meanwhile, has been making a name for herself in the Twin Cities for years. Beginning with her 2005 solo debut album, Resonate, she has developed her own reputation as a brilliant singer/songwriter, known for her understated-yet-compelling performance style and her penchant for taking chances. Her collaboration with Graham O’Brien as Moon & Pollution resulted in the highly acclaimed 2015 album The Box Borealis, transfixing fans and critics alike with their creative combination of EDM elements and Dean’s folkier sensibilities.
The excitement came when we realized that the music coming from these two could be really good.
After what has seemed like an exceptionally long time, and with the burden of high expectations hanging around them, Dusty Heart has finally released their eponymous debut.
Folks, they do not disappoint.
The opening track, “Broke Down,” is what one might call Baseline Dusty Heart. Built on a foundation of Jean’s banjo, Dean’s
guitar, and an unobtrusive rhythm section, the song showcases their superb harmony. Both women are gifted vocalists and the natural blend of their voices is nothing short of gorgeous. It helps that, as writers, they both understand the value of a great melody. “Broke Down” is a simple, sadly beautiful song, and it is the ideal platform for this duo to present us with what would presumably be their greatest strength.
“Archer” and “Timbre and Trail” are more of the same. The rich harmonies provide strength to the former, and melancholy depth to the latter (although not as much as Jean’s grandly mournful viola). If one were to hear just the first three songs on Dusty Heart, there would be a satisfying feeling of met expectations; we were promised fine melodies, gorgeous harmonies and excellent songcraft. Three songs in, that ‘s exactly what we receive.
That’s when Jean and Dean really go to work.
As well-seasoned musicians, neither is a stranger to the recording studio. And between the two of them, they have decades of song writing experience. So, not content to simply take the path of least resistance and give us more pretty melodies wrapped in lush harmonies, they flex their considerable muscles, turning this album from a delightful listen to a bar-raising, landmark achievement.
The harmonies that, to this point, have been so pleasant suddenly become otherworldly on the mystical “Blue Wing.” Aided by Erik Koskinen’s occasional-yet-powerful baritone guitar and some brilliantly placed not-quite-random percussion from J.T. Bates, Dean and Jean create a jaw-droppingly elegant soundscape. “Traces” is a whispered prayer, presented with precise, spare vocals and Eric Heywood’s exquisite pedal steel guitar. “In the Cool” follows with a torch song swagger; Dean’s powerful vocal is lifted by Jean’s swirling harmonies and violin. The album closes with “Bury Me,” a menacing, spooky, slowly building piece of strength and haunting beauty, again built on those two voices. Putting a fine point on this statement of arrival, they sing “Put your heart back to work/Let no work be in vain.”
The work here is far from being in vain.
In fact, if there is a criticism to be made with this album, it is in the wanting. The eight songs on Dusty Heart just aren’t enough. Like all great entertainers, they leave us asking for more, which, after a three year wait, is a bit frustrating.
But with that said, Dusty Heart is everything we’d hoped for and far more. The duo has recorded a beautiful album that is still able to challenge its audience with creative songcraft and musicianship. These songs work together to create an overall sound and feel that is unexpectedly head turning in its vision and inventiveness.
We knew Dusty Heart would make good music. We expected good. What they’ve given is just so much better.
Dusty Heart will celebrate the release of their debut album tonight, March 16, at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. For more information, click here.