Before his name started showing up as a producer on albums by R.E.M., the Smithereens, Let’s Active and many others, Don Dixon spent fourteen years as bassist/singer/songwriter in a hot North Carolina band called Arrogance. On the solo debut from this jack-of-all-musical-trades, Dixon offers an uneven but engaging five-year patchwork of singles and demos from his personal archives — some from the Arrogance days, others done at home on his 4-track and one recorded at Mitch’s Drive-In Studio — that display his affection for ’60s pop and R&B. Sometimes cynical, sometimes whimsical, his views of love and lust are delivered with a soulman’s vocal passion. The wonderfully oddball images of kissing insects and claw action in “Praying Mantis” make it an instant gem; Mitch Easter contributes lead guitar to a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Skin Deep.” (The original British edition has a few different tracks, song annotation and alternate artwork than the subsequent American release.) The four-song EP packages the title song with another album track and two more from the Arrogance library, including a sweat-drenched live version of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which also appears on the US album.
The all-new Romeo at Juilliard fulfills the first album’s promise in spades. Aided by a few guests (mainly drummers, but also Easter, Dixon’s wife and frequent musical partner Marti Jones and Spongetones guitarist Jamie Hoover), Dixon rocks confidently in a country/pure pop/Atlantic soul/R&B style that equally suggests the gritty side of John Hiatt and the gloss of Nick Lowe. Expressing deep bitterness at a former loved one, his songs are well-written and brilliantly executed; each arrangement varies the approach without straying far from the LP’s overall sound. Dixon’s voice is wonderfully rich and emotional; that he’s distinguished himself as a producer and not a singer/songwriter (yet) hardly seems believable from the evidence here. “Borrowed Time,” “Your Sister Told Me” and “Swallowing Pride” are pained outpourings that channel the man’s soul right through your speakers.
Chi-Town Budget Show is a fine, unadorned document of a March ’88 live radio broadcast, with Dixon backed by Marti Jones and North Carolina’s Woods. It’s smart, ingratiating fun; the two Dixon/Jones acoustic tracks which open the disc provide a keepsake of the duo’s endearing live presence.
EEE adds the Uptown Horns to the mix with predictably appealing results. Dixon’s originals — “Oh Cheap Chatter,” “Roots of Truth,” “Silent Screen” — mine quirky rock-soul territory more persuasively than ever, and he also wraps his pipes around some well-chosen covers, including an adorable duet (with Jones) on Brenton Wood’s 1967 hit, “Gimme Little Sign.” There’s even a bit of avant-garde audio collage (“EEE/T.O.T.T.V.”) that actually works.