This newest effort from St. Dirt offers the most vivid image of this Toronto-based “junkyard jazz” combo. Whereas their two previous discs offered a rawer live feel and catchier tunes, the overall sophistication and nuance of Ice Cream Man Dreams showcases both the compositional prowess of lap-steel-wielding leader Myk Freedman and the adept musicianship of his bandmates.
Without question, Barnyard Records’ Jean Martin’s characteristically precise and rich style of recording works in the band’s favour, bringing each individual voice to the fore. Previous releases on other labels seemed to be weighted toward the more conspicuously idiosyncratic members, whose effects were juxtaposed with ensemble textures. Jake Oelrich’s clatter-and-honk drumming, Ryan Driver’s psychedelic synth tones, and, of course, Freedman’s swoopingly smooth lap-steel lines still stand out, but now, the more intimate production aesthetic allows the listener a chance to cozy up to the unique sounds of each one of the instrumentalists. Wes Cheang’s clean and intricate acoustic guitar playing and Mike Overton’s robust bass are where one hears the biggest strides forward in terms of clarity, the two having seemed on previous recordings to be tucked away amidst the ensemble’s quirky banter. Having Martin’s attentive ears behind the mixing board has brought far greater contour to the reeds (who have been rejoined by Evan Shaw) and the now meticulously in-tune piano.
Freedman’s compositions have taken a turn toward the clever and more subdued. On their last effort, quirky mid-tempo numbers with near slapstick arrangements dominated, imparting a playful effect. Here, there is still plenty of fun to be had, but it’s far more subtle, and there is some emphasis on languid ballad-style numbers. The cartoonish opener demonstrates some new-found subtlety in orchestration, yet remains true to the band’s signature madcap form. Lap steel and glockenspiel blend together seamlessly to evoke the Doppler effect of a passing ice-cream van, and the theme is colourfully re-orchestrated and passed around the ensemble. The band has also taken great care to allow each voice to breathe, making the painterly slow pieces a real treat—a treat that is not without its own set of peculiar surprises.