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Album Review | Dakota Jones’ “Black Light”

Brooklyn-based, New York four-piece Dakota Jones emotively explore heavy themes with even heavier grooves on their debut album Black Light, out 27 August 2021.

Rooted in the blues rock realm of gritty guitar riffs, slapping basslines, and vocals that stand united in both message and harmony, Dakota Jones’ debut album is articulately sewn with themes of proud black heritage and triumphant queerness, while still leaving room for those feisty live performances the band are known for.

Fronted by co-founding member and lead singer Tristan Carter-Jones, the band’s desire for true artistic expression and their knack for storytelling means that to listen to Dakota Jones is to feel, think, and listen in ways that few other artists make you. The project opens with the lead single from the album, I Did it to Myself, and this immediately demonstrates Carter-Jones’ song writing ability and unique vocal delivery. Lyrically, the song tackles the complexities of growing up and learning to become the person that you’re meant to be.

However, with classic rock percussion, 80s style whammy guitar riffs and exciting call and response with the backing vocals throughout the verses, there’s a clear paradox between the lyrical content and musical approach of I Did it to Myself. This subversion represents the hysteria that Carter-Jones experiences as a queer black artist both in the music industry, but also in her everyday life. The song encapsulates the internal dialogue of a person gradually understanding her place in the world, yet unfazed by life’s chaos and passionate about the person she’s becoming: “I’m a black, queer woman expressing myself through love and music. Some folks still find that to be a transgressive act in and of itself. I work to fight that idea.”

Dakota Jones has garnered a fast-growing reputation as a formidable live act, with the band consisting of a roster of talented musicians; Scott Kramp (bass) Steve Ross (drums), and acclaimed musician Randy Jacobs (guitar). The collective seeks to create an immersive live experience as much as a refined studio one. They refuse to be defined, and revel in the elation that their music creates. There is no better example of this than the larger than life and comprehensive Noise.

The track embodies everything great about their live shows, but still holds the instrumental refinement and production needed to keep the record succinct and clean. It opens with a wall of beautifully composed wind instruments that automatically capture the ear and precede what immediately feels like a live performance. This quickly transitions into a relaxed blues jazz tune with a brilliant drum break to turn the musical tide.

The combination of light reverb, inclusion of intricate layered backing vocals, perfectly performed by Kudisan Kai – former backing vocalist for the likes of Elton John, Sting and Chaka Khan – and a true collective feel to the instrumentation, make the entire track feel as though you are experiencing the music there in the room with the musicians. With the addition of an impressive guitar solo and the glorious chanting of ‘make some noise’ in the backend of the cut, it’s as if you’ve just been a part of a fantastic jam session – clinched by the overwhelming sense of solidarity and togetherness.

Written as a reaction to the 2016 US election, Carter-Jones explains the context to Noise: “I woke up after the election feeling pure panic and fear in my body. I wanted people in a place of privilege to stand up for what I was feeling, stand up for injustice, stand up for all of the things we need to change as a country. I wanted their rage, and I wanted their noise.”  This solidarity in the face of injustice creates a classic sounding track that perfectly embodies the musical ethos of Dakota Jones.

The conceptual highlight of the project is the brooding half-haunting piano ballad, half-R&B infused rock anthem, Medicine. For a band so rooted in visceral emotion and honesty, this track elevates their aptitude for dark, reflective themes and cleverly explores the personal battles that one experiences when addicted or overly reliant on self-medication and substance abuse.

Carter-Jones suggests that: “we don’t get to hear these things from a woman’s mouth as often as we should,” and this is presented perfectly with a Rolling Stones-esque blues rock song such as Medicine. By reinterpreting the 70s rock ‘n’ roll genre, but with more sensitive self-reflective lyrics, Dakota Jones demonstrates their singularity as an artist by recycling classic rock themes and critiquing them through clever lyricism and thoughtful production.

You could be mistaken for assigning Dakota Jones a specific genre and labelling them with a certain musical influence. There are the obvious names that shape their sound – be it the power of Chaka Khan, the wild spontaneity of Janis Joplin, or the honey-dripping sensuality of Marvin Gaye. Yet, spearheaded by their shamelessly unrestricted lead singer and songwriter Tristan Carter-Jones, the collective is reforming a multitude of genres that have previously been found guilty of outdated tropes and a lack of emotional depth. Their ability to use retrospective self-discovery and articulately turn that into a groove that you can let loose to, means that they are in fact timeless and adverse to any musical token or ascendancy.

Carter-Jones says that this new project embodies “the pleasure and pain of truly finding yourself. There’s pain and longing, and there’s the feeling of relief when you come out of that place and find your joy and purpose again. Black Light is my story.”

Black Light isn’t just a true story told well; it is a story told with truth, in every sense of the word.

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Album Review | Dakota Jones’ “Black Light”
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