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Only Son
that's my boy!
by: Ben Krieger - July 15, 2011

After sitting down with Only Son’s Jack Dishel for a few hours and learning a bit about how he operates, it seems a bit ironic to forward him the Delicious Audio questions about the recording process. Dishel is not a musical magician in the strictness sense, but in the song, “Magic,” he is pretty clear: even if you know how he recorded that guitar, what preamps he used, how he miked the drums, and his relationship with his mom, you’ll never be able to assemble his soul.

Only Son’s second and latest record is “Searchlight.” The band is just the latest chapter in Dishel’s rich artistic history that includes notoriety as a teenage underground graffiti celebrity, time spent as a guitarist for the Moldy Peaches, and success fronting a previous solo project, Stipplicon. Most recently, he’s ventured into standup comedy. These activities further emphasize the point that it’s impossible (and undesirable) to try and pin this songwriter down simply by listening to the music (at least not before you search MySpace for his hip-hop project, Jack Beats Bruno). Only Son’s music holds up beautifully on its own and the ever-growing collection of DIY music videos on the band’s website expands the picture with a healthy dose of humor, but the band is just one aspect of this highly creative artist.

Sonically, Only Son has one foot in the arrangements and melodies of late-Beatles McCartney, the other in the ambitious scope of late-90s Radiohead, and a third leg in David Bowie’s stardust. In terms of spirit, however, Dishel avoids the whimsy, overemotional delivery, and theatrical tendencies of those artists, respectively. He has concerns to get across, and he’s not going to distract you with too much of a storyline or pyrotechnics. At the heart of most songs is an acoustic guitar, often emphasized by carefully articulated electric guitar riffs, bass, drums (all played by Dishel) with an impressive array of guest string and horn players adding their presence in a way that never feels tacked on (including the late Daniel Cho on cello). Dishel has worked with a band in the studio before and Only Son’s live lineup currently includes Rick Snell (guitar), Paul Amorese (drums), Mike Chiavaro (bass) Dave Sherman (keyboards). Dishel’s gathered an impressive array of peers during his time in the trenches. While the presence of Regina Spektor on “Call Them Brothers” might catch someone’s eye while reading the liner notes to the latest record—not to mention the contributing players from other well-known bands (the Strokes, Of Montreal)—Searchlight is Dishel’s show through and through.

Cult musician and rock critic Scott Miller once described popular music as that which maintains the status quo it doesn’t attempt to tell or show the listener anything that would rock the boat. In this sense, Only Son is not popular music. Dishel uses a technique that Bruce Springsteen is fond of: make your record triumphantly blow through the car stereo speakers while the lyrics deliver the rough news. It’s a difficult trick to pull off and Dishel’s voice is key: understated and earnest, with just enough of a quaver to remind you that this music is not meant to be aural wallpaper. Dishel’s characters struggle with their sense of identity in a culture that insists on trying to dissect and suppress them. Artists desperately hold on to their secrets, trying to maintain the sense of mystery that they value so much doctors try to assemble the self from the womb and parents want them to financially secure, 9-to-5 workers feel enslaved inside a spiritual zoo and fear that they lack the courage to flee it ambitious souls who are trying to strip their current situation down to its very essence only to find that the truth is subjective. This is ambitious singer-songwriter music for our times. There are ever-growing forces trying to break the individual down into a collection of personal photos, wall posts, a personalized database of spending habits, or any number of other criteria one could think up. Dishel seems to be fighting to keep himself—and his listeners—greater than a sum of the parts. “All songs have intentional vibes and messages, and unintentional ones,” says Dishel, “A lot of times I’ll say something and will be affected by the idea. Many people through time have had these [thoughts]…I just catch them like fireflies…I almost feel like my songs are a collection of moments that I’ve had personally and have found amazing.”

Searchlight was recorded in Dishel’s ProTools home studio, and the same equipment that coaxed out the pristine Searchlight is also responsible for upcoming releases from the often raw-sounding Berth Control and Toby Goodshank (ex-Moldy Peaches). The ease and editing options in the digital age of recording fascinate Dishel because he knows that everything from the vocal take to the happy accidents on a record are not a result of the restrictions of an analog recording. “It makes a different environment for me when I hear music,” says Dishel, “because I know that a lot of what I’m hearing is intentional. I know that a sound was chosen over other sounds.” He acknowledges the loss of spontaneity that comes from his meticulous approach to recording, but feels that there is a different kind of beauty in the finished product: “It’s like a reconstruction of spontaneous moments. And then I’ll write them down, record them, and later Frankenstein them together into some new thing…not ‘it,’ but something else.”

As far as success is concerned, Dishel seems more interested with trucking along artistically and surfing whatever waves his hard work and resources have allotted him. He will not miss a chance to joke about this quest, however. “The music business is a stiff fucking corpse,” he says, “and why am I going to try and mount a rigor mortis dick? I’m just going to continue to do what I do independently and pray to God that some douche commercial picks me up…” Only Son fans that get a chance to see Dishel live are often treated to wisecracks like this during the banter in between songs. It makes the experience that much richer.

For those moments where we don’t want to laugh but just need some time to sit by ourselves and listen to someone who understands our struggles to figure out who the hell we are, “Searchlight” delivers. Upon first hearing the latest record, this writer was immediately reminded of a powerful scene in the film, “Taxi Driver,” when Travis Bickle stares at American Bandstand on the television while Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” plays in the background. It is a moving soundtrack for the protagonist’s feelings regarding isolation, doubt, enlightenment and the self. The moment harnesses the same “magic” that flows through Dishel’s songwriting. Look up the scene on YouTube, mute the sound, and queue up “All Is Holy” to 1:38, hitting play just as the film jumps to DeNiro aiming his gun at the television. See?


" Sonically, Only Son has one foot in the arrangements and melodies of late-Beatles McCartney, the other in the ambitious scope of late-90s Radiohead, and a third leg in David Bowie’s stardust. "

Only Son

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what it is

Melodic, ambitious rock music with acoustic underpinnings and a lot of heart, for those who like: Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Paul Westerberg