Dot Kill Dot
Neil Carlill has made a lot of albums with a lot of different people over his twenty-year career, but for the British singer/songwriter and bird fanatic (now a resident of Salem, Mass.), this one fulfills a longtime fancy, and serves a beloved cause. Dot Kill Dot is the debut album from Harvey Mapcase, the band Carlill formed with drummer Doug Allen in 2011, with former Thee Hydrogen Terrors guitarist Matt White completing the three-piece on bass in 2012. This is Carlill’s first time fronting a fixed ensemble in many years, and, after a decade of joint projects, it marks a return to solo songwriting. This is also the first of his records to be brought out 100% independently, under the King Harvey Records label. Such unprecedented autonomy led Carlill to muse about how he could meaningfully link the project to his passion for avian creatures, combining his twin obsessions in a way that could benefit the latter, while perhaps making the former a more rewarding endeavor.
During the recording of the album, Neil found himself concerned about his friend and go-to bird expert, Jodi Swenson. A licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Swenson founded and operates Cape Ann Wildlife (CAW), a rescue, rehab, and release facility in Gloucester, Mass, caring for sick and injured wild birds and small animals. An ailing sparrow Neil found in the road first brought him to CAW in 2009, where he was deeply impressed by Swenson’s dedication. Then, over the years, there was the fledgling chickadee by the rubbish bins, the baby starling in the attic, and countless more instances wherein Swenson’s compassion and expertise were invaluable. Neil has the highest admiration for what Jodi does. When financial difficulties threatened to close the non-profit, Neil wanted to do whatever he could to help Jodi. It was already turning out to the ‘birdiest’ album Neil ever wrote, with song titles like “Bali Starlings,” “Screech Owls,” and “Ravens Pick Locks” (rumor has it, they can), so tying it to Cape Ann Wildlife seemed obvious. The album has other themes: aging, the accumulation of time’s ravages, the race against the inevitable fading of the senses. In this light, the birds in the lyrics appear to be wistful representations of youth, vitality, freedom . . . but mostly they just represent birds, because birds are elemental.
Dot Kill Dot started life as a collection of 11 songs written by Neil and recorded onto a Dictaphone—just vocals and acoustic guitar. In 2012 Neil and Doug spent most of the year rehearsing, arranging, rearranging and recording these songs. Matt joined toward the end of this process just in time to add some new bass and backing vocals. Musically, the album is stirringly melodic in the best tradition of Elliott Smith, later Beatles, Big Star (etc.), and as lithe and inventive as an offspring of Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Electric Warrior by T. Rex, that grew up listening to The Fall. Carlill’s most intricate guitar work to date, and Allen’s versatile, ingenious drumming form the musical core. Neil and Doug’s arrangements are stripped down to the naked essentials, with White bestowing subtle, sweet vocal harmonies. Production on the record, by Berlin-based producer Jayrope , was kept deliberately raw and unobtrusive, leaving room for the trio’s kaleidoscopic cadences and ever-transforming rhythms. Tracks like the flamenco-hued “Hysteria,” and the arresting “It’s a Ritual,” which snakes fluently through the abrupt yet graceful hairpin turns that epitomize Carlill’s song structures, highlight the band’s intelligent interpretation of alternative pop/art-rock.
In 2011, Carlill contributed to the Three on a Match project, a musical homage to the films of Bette Davis, along with his favorite fellow musician, the amazingly gifted King Toad (a.k.a. Jamal River, of Iowa City). Their plans for further collaboration came to a tragic end when River took his own life at age 35, in July 2013. It is impossible to overstate the influence King Toad’s work has had on Carlill’s own, and Dot Kill Dot is dedicated to River’s memory.
Though the album will be for sale in digital format from iTunes and Bandcamp, it is hoped people will plump for the beautifully packaged CD, with its cover painting and stunning bird photographs created explicitly for the project by Portland, OR artists Junko Suzuki and Shawn Martin, respectively. Junko contributed the paintings for the front cover, depicting Bali Starlings, and the back cover, a raven. Two more of her works are used in the booklet. Shawn Martin snapped a series of portraits of Ravi, a Screech Owl from the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon, and of Aristophanes, a Raven from the Audubon Society of Portland. British artist and sculptor Austin J. Orwin contributed his own unique flavor with two photographs used in the booklet.
As for the title, “Dot Kill Dot” is, in one sense, a reference to our modern culture of hostility, particularly the way the remote, anonymous nature of internet communication brings out the brutal “judge-mentality” in people. But it’s also a bird thing: a call Neil heard on pre-dawn drive, loud and clear like a whippoorwill’s, sounded uncannily like “dut-keeel-dut /dut-keeeeeel-dut”’ This happened after the title track for the album had been written, supplying a perfect echo of confirmation.