Dennis O’Brien – Still In The Same Dream (Ode/Rhythmethod) CD REVIEW

DennisTHE NON-CAREER of Dennis O’Brien reminds me of that classic line from On The Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender!”
Except that the Wellington-based singer-songwriter seems philosophical about having somehow missed his chance to join the pantheon of successful singer-songwriters.
It’s great that, at long last, Still In The Same Dream – subtitled Songs 1972-1982 – brings to public attention a selection of tracks from his three vinyl albums, proving that NZ still has gold left in those vaults, and room yet for more surprising rediscoveries.
It’s an amazing story: Dennis O’Brien was already a fully-fledged singer-songwriter by the early ‘70s, and inevitably ended up trying his luck in England, where he was signed to the Charisma label (home to Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Monty Python…) and got to record his first album utilising the skills of producer Hugh Murphy and the session musicians he featured on that huge Gerry Rafferty smash, ‘Baker St’. In fact, the celebrated saxophonist from that very song, Raphael Ravenscroft, blows all over my favourite O’Brien song, the desolate and desperate sounding ‘Any Other Face In The Rain.’ (Lyricist David Porter confirms via email that: “I wrote the lyrics on a desolate and desperate (and no doubt impoverished) night in London.”)

The songs from that first album, Any Other Face, still sound fresh, and although the local musicians/production used on his subsequent albums can’t quite match the slickness of that first one, the 21 songs gathered on this compile reek of quality.
In the liner notes, O’Brien reveals that his big influences were early 1960s balladeers like Del Shannon, Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, and in retrospect, it’s not hard to see the connection. But O’Brien’s ballad-oriented singer-songwriting oozes with the studio vocabulary of the 1970s: my wife refers to his voice as a “strange vibration”, and his utterly distinctive vocals and balladeer style bear more than a passing resemblance to pre-disco Bee Gees. (And yes, it’s true that you could claim that his vocals were maybe an acquired taste, but then, you could say the same thing about Robin Gibb). Add a touch of Elton John, a smidgen of ELO, and a big dab of American AOR songwriter smarts and you’d be getting close.
Like Elton’s wordsmith Bernie Taupin, O’Brien relied on the vivid imagery of either David Porter and Nick Theobald to add lyrical weight to his song creations, and those contributions can’t be underrated.
dennis1I remember when Any Other Face slithered onto the NZ market in 1979, barely registering despite the obvious international standard of its singing, songwriting, performances and production, and how out of time it already seemed with the foment of punk bearing down on the local scene. O’Brien’s is one of the great ‘what if’ stories. If he had remained in London, or moved to America, could he have made the big time? I reckon so, and it’s an apt illustration of just how much luck is an ingredient in so many success stories.
I couldn’t help thinking while listening to these artfully composed pieces just how much some of them are like rock operas in miniature, and how a small re-orientation could have seen them adapted to a Meatloaf-style melodramatic presentation. Heck, Meatloaf could even have covered them.
B2462_01O’Brien ended up settling back in Wellington and starting his second hand record shop, Slow Boat Records, first in a tiny space off Lambton Quay, then later taking over a large store in Cuba St that for years had been partly records/books and partly smutty stuff. It’s to his credit that not only did he get rid of the latter, but developed an institution/community that has weathered all trends.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the original vinyl of Any Other Face was released on NZ independent label Ode, and that 34 years later, it’s Ode once again (now owned by Roger Marbeck) releasing this sterling compilation. It’s also interesting that Slow Boat is mentioned on the original liner information, way before the store was even a gleam in O’Brien’s eye… GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 3.5/5

5 Comments

  1. Gary, thank you for your comments. You always had a good heart, even if our musical tastes were a way apart.Isn’t it odd, I never gave a damn, but I’m pleased to have your kind words -and believe me, I know what’s true and what’s not. I alway thought my music was stuck in its time and I would have to get drunk to listen to it. Now when I listen to it I get drunk – an improvement, no?

    Kindest,

    Dennis.

  2. Hi Dennis, its been a while since the woolshed days, i used to listen to your stuff as was in the kitchen in those days, good to see you’ve done well in welly. cheers ed

  3. I love this album, it reminds me of the many years I spent in the 1860 listing to Dennis and the Dennis OBrien band singing and playing great music. I sang along with them and danced the night away. I have loved Dennis’s music and unique voice for many years and I always will. Dennis and Rob Winch became friends of mine in the old days and I will always treasure every second I spent with them. This album takes me back to those nights and makes me feel as if it was only yesterday. Even though the mirror and the pains in my body tell me otherwise ?

  4. I love this album, it reminds me of the many years I spent in the 1860 listing to Dennis and the Dennis OBrien band singing and playing great music. I sang along with them and danced the night away. I have loved Dennis’s music and unique voice for many years and I always will. Dennis and Rob Winch became friends of mine in the old days and I will always treasure every second I spent with them. This album takes me back to those nights and makes me feel as if it was only yesterday. Even though the mirror and the pains in my body tell me otherwise ?

  5. I too worked at the Woolshed when you were resident Dennis, Pleased that you have finally got a CD out. Now maybe I can abandon my digital recordings of you vinyl

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