imageI’ve always assumed there’s a dark river flowing beneath my fans’ desires.


As we move once more to the re-opening of the London Wonderground cabaret season on the South Bank’s Spiegeltent one of the highlights will surely be the return of Dusty Limits with Michael Roulston and their band. Last year’s show was devoted to a performance of their album, Grin, and as much of the new show Black Dogs of Death is given over to songs that were left out of that superabundant album, it is perhaps time to look back on one of the most notable events in last year’s London cabaret scene, and anticipate another deep draught of rasping melancholy relieved only with a tincture of Chateau Covonia.

Grin invites you to enjoy an evening of Gothic cabaret chic in the lustrously louche company of Dusty Limits (who also occasionally answers to Dorian Black) and that suave chameleon of the keyboard, composer Michael Roulston. The two of them have toured these songs and others for some fifteen years now during which time they have both become respected and admired leaders of the cabaret world in London. So while this is a studio release what is captured here is in fact the bottled essence of a long line of live theatrical performances.

In his introduction to last year’s launch event Dusty Limits described his sound and mood world as ‘The sit-down misery response to stand-up comedy.’ So be warned, the humour here is as dark as a black hole in Outer Space. Emerging – apparently – from a primeval slime of self-hatred, depression and romantic disappointment these thirteen songs carve out a defiant but definitely Baroque niche for themselves in which various themes emerge and merge again into a sharp-witted ‘around midnight’ miasma of drunken despair – whether urban alienation, grotesque satirical portraits of family and friends, romantic possibilities brusquely dismissed, and wry, defiant assertions of style alongside full-scale acknowledgment of grim realities .

5th April offers a risky beginning in the form of a portrait of writer’s block wittily mirrored in music. Spiky octave gestures and melodic fragments fail to gel as the singer embraces wine and long afternoons of frustration with a spooky saxophone solo and plenty of percussion to indicate the lack of creative flow.

Nobody’s Fool (in waltz time) offers a fantasy of late night café music with trills and whining violin all working up into a manic dance with parodic chorus, sinister not soothing. Is the singer really tired, drunk, lonely, and nobody’s fool? Or is this an alcohol-fuelled fantasy, all in his head. Either way it is sinister not soothing…

As a sharp contrast in mood and character, Poor is an up-tempo satire of the high-life types of SW3, with very sharp and naughty patter mirrored musically in a delightfully slinky Latin interlude. ‘I’d rather be poor’ is the conclusion, but we encounter some all-too-familiar yet finely detailed portraits of creative narcissism that hardly seem exaggerated.

Silhouette Town is a haunting portrait of urban alienation at night with plenty of poetic evocation, dislocated fragments of percussion and sax, arpeggiated piano, and melismatic keening – very similar to the London world evoked elsewhere in City Stories by James Phillips and Rosabella Gregory.

Reunion offers a very knowing, Nöel Coward-like, full-on Gothic portrait of a ghastly family reunion – ‘the spawn of original and plagiaristic sin.’ As the oom-pah-pah pace gathers, and the climb through the keys begins, Klezmer overtones are added by the backing group. Roulston finds some wonderful key transitions here – as Black says these are ’chords that don’t occur in nature….’ There is a deliciously ghoulish ending, and a reminder that all families are at some level ‘conspiracies of memories and lies.’

Never Sober is another drinking song with a symbolist beginning over a woozy chaos of rocking chords and ballooning double bass. We’re not clear whether the singer is ‘just drunk or unconscious or vaguely hung-over’ before a segue into La vie en Rose and a fade into ghostly shimmers.

Is it too late? is even darker, but leavened by witty resilience and misanthropic relish in the lyrics and artificially bright instrumentation: skitter-scatter violin, relentless upbeat tempo. There is a self-fulfilling danger in declaring that you are ‘writing black doggerel’, which this song just about avoids; but as it is similar to others on the album, it was the one track which might have been omitted to advantage.

Imagine, which follows, is however a delightfully wicked number with a deceptive, falsely romantic opening leading into catchy syncopation worthy of the Gershwins in their ’Let’s call the whole things off’ vein. Will our mordant gay hero get together with a lesbian friend to have kids? There are some laugh-out-oud lines along the way: ‘God Knows, our DNA should be in the V&A’ and plenty of double-edged requests to ‘Think of the kids’.

And the Rain starts and ends with a parodic formal running bass on piano and bassoon. We are in the world of a down-and-out whose loneliness and predicament are sketched out in hurdy-gurdy street music that evokes shades of Schubert at his bleakest. There is another grim ending in the offing as refusal of charity offers the prospect of a freezing death for the invisible man as the rain washes over his feet….

Anything but love shifts the mood with a sonically joyful incisive jazz number that sounds like late Ellington or clipped Count Basie. The theme is ‘give me anything but love’, and there are some cute adverbs to back up the message as well as very neat piano solo and bass solos. A particularly tart bait and switch wraps things up.

One Empty bottle: is another drinking song built around a slow waltz and a count through late night depression. The clever, insistent repetitions of the accompaniment prevent a sense of over much repetition of the mood of romantic longing, shocking weather, and suicide in the offing.

Drink takes off into a whirl upbeat intoxication before becoming a dance of death with accordion, not far away from Fiddler on the Roof again. Dusty Limits find a fine high note and the musicians build to a powerful overall climax.

The title track comes last offering a bluesy, moody, musing piano: the black dog of depression is theme. There is no false comfort, only an injunction to ‘grin and bear it like a skull’ and remain blithe before the ‘scrawny bastard with the scythe comes round to claim you’. Style is always available to confront eternal problems.

Throughout Roulston provides tasteful and finely judged accompaniments, with a broad palette of instrumental possibilities, and paradoxical juxtapositions too. There is very good sound throughout too: though the voice is closely miked, the instruments are well balanced and distinguished from one another and there is plenty of dynamic range all round within which the arrangements can breathe. The instrumentalists shine collectively and in their individual solo spots.

It is hard to sum up an album that finds so many shades of grey and black but perhaps the final resting point of these multi-layered songs is the one eloquently described by that self-same Morrissey quoted at the start of this review. In his recent Autobiography he writes: ‘The wisdom of centuries shook me and told me that however heavy-hearted and impossible you might feel about yourself, you can still bestow love through recorded song – which just might be the only place where you have the chance to show yourself as you really are, since nothing in your disposed life gives you encouragement.’

Bookings for performances at Brighton

Dusty Limits : Grin
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…