First Impressions: The Dream Is to Dream by Henning Ohlenbusch

Music discovery in the digital age is an odd duck. Pandora, for instance, utilizes musicologists to map the genome of songs new and old, with results being fed into the algorithm that drives its on-the-fly playlists. Apple Music, Spotify and the other streaming services likewise spend beaucoup bucks on their playlists and recommendations, as their main selling point—beyond their similar catalogs—is “music discovery.” If you like song A, the theory goes, you should like songs B and C. 

In my limited experience, however, it rarely works. On occasion, I pull up Apple Music’s weekly New Music Mix, which uses my past plays to predict potential new likes, but find myself skipping most. Instead, I dig into specific categories (Alternative, Americana and Indie, sometimes Country) to find new releases of interest, browse Bandcamp and/or delve into the many publicist emails that clutter my inbox. Too, I browse specific music sites and blogs (some of which are in my blogroll) on a regular basis and, as today’s review demonstrates, discover new and new-to-me artists via Twitter.

Which leads to this: A few years ago, Henning Ohlenbusch’s name kept popping up on my Twitter feed by way of third parties that I follow, with either them commenting on his tweets or him theirs. So, as one does, I followed him. I had no idea that he was a musician—and unlike other artists, he never sent a DM trumpeting his work, so my ignorance remained for quite some time.

Turns out, he’s a veteran of the Northampton, Mass., music scene, playing both in The Fawns, which is led by his partner Lesa Bezo, and his own group, which began life as School of the Dead before changing its name to Gentle Hen. He’s also released a few solo albums, EPs and singles through the years. 

The Dream Is to Dream is his latest effort. It opens with the atmospheric “Approach the Moment,” an instrumental number that sounds a bit like Pink Floyd, Jean-Michel Jarre and Cassandra Jenkins’ “The Ramble” rolled into one. Like that Jenkins track, it’s a thing of intriguing beauty. The title track follows, with echoes of the Velvet Underground’s third album permeating the proceedings. Part of that is due to Ohlenbusch’s nasal delivery, which at times conjures Lou Reed’s. “Misunderstand us/Get us wrong/Nobody planned this/It’s been this way so long/The dream is to dream,” he sings, his plaintive vocal adding to the song’s strength. At times, both here and elsewhere, he also reminds me of Josh Rouse.

“Under the Stars of Daylight” offers advice to the workaholics among us: “Take a break/You’ve been working too much/Big mistake/You don’t want to lose touch/With who you’ve been all these years/And who you’d like to remain/Don’t let them change you.” It’s another pastoral number, while “Wide Eyes Wise Eyes” adds a light pop touch—and a rather cynical take on life: “You can have it all/So what?/You can rule the world/Who cares?/‘Cause everything you do/Eventually is undone/The moon and the sun/And everyone.“

“Don’t Blame the Sun” expands upon the pessimistic mood, no doubt inspired by pandemic life: “When we emerge from hiding/We find ourselves deciding/To turn around and head back to our home.” The video below, which sets the song to VHS home movies from the 1980s, is quite cool.

“Explore the Moment” revisits the ambient motif of “Approach the Moment,” while the light pop of “What More Could You Want?” adds Beach Boy-like harmonies. “What Shall We Preserve,” inspired by a now-vacant house, picks up where the preceding song left off; what becomes a family home when the family has left? What needs be kept, if anything? (My advice: Let it all go. Memories will suffice.) 

“Songs That We Know on the Radio” imagines flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun, but missing the snow, the heater’s glow and songs on the radio. (It’s not a fun sci-fi spin on Al Stewart’s “Song on the Radio,” in other words, but a pessimist’s paean.) A Byrds-like texture accents “I’ll Stay Behind,” which finds Ohlenbusch wanting to stay home instead of going out for a night on the town.

“Look Up,” the penultimate track, is a mostly instrumental number that leads into “Embrace the Moment,” which expands the motif of the previous “Moment” numbers. Like much of the album, for me it conjures not just the Velvet Underground, but the songs and albums by various Paisley Underground bands from the 1980s. When I played it back-to-back with tracks from the Dream Syndicate’s forthcoming LP, it fit right in.

Which is to say, give The Dream Is to Dream a go.  

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