Dan MacDonald, a Chicago based visual media artist, songwriter, and musician, is the one man band behind Spitzer Space Telescope. The latest work from his fertile imagination, Colonies in the Wild Frontier, puts the full breadth of his skills to use. There’s no question of that. The presentation of Colonies in the Wild Frontier makes no secret of its desire to break all the rules and create new paradigms for popular music. It is released no standard form – no compact disc, vinyl, cassette, MP3, nothing. Instead, Colonies in the Wild Frontier is an app available from the usual suspects on your smart phone. There is an assortment of videos to select from depicting alternate performances of the standard eight tracks in various dramatizations as well as other video material. MacDonald’s aim, in part, is to trace the evolution of song through history, but it barely scratches the surface.
It will have a niche audience. There are some who will certainly not appreciate the different voices MacDonald affects throughout the songs or quickly tire of the dark subject matter. However, anyone who loves traditional music, specifically American and European folk songs, will be caught up as Colonies in the Wild Frontier sweeps across the history of a form with unshakeable confidence. Field hollers, 19th century work songs heard throughout the regional United States, like the first song “99 Years Holler” and “Corn Holler” are steeped in hard times and desperation. His only accompaniment is his hands and feet on the first track, but the second spotlights some searing fiddle work. This reviewer’s response to hearing MacDonald’s vocals for the first time impressed me greatly and my admiration only grows, but there is something admittedly quite stylized, perhaps a little too performative if you think such a thing is possible, in the way he self-consciously adopts a different accent depending on the style. His emotive and phrasing abilities are immense from the start. The songwriting on “Poor Soldier” has some differences in lyrical presentation, but it’s essential cut from the same cloth.
MacDonald splits his attention pretty evenly between the American and European traditions. They manifest themselves in a variety of styles. The second song “Crew of the Undyin’” is shanty-like while “In My Garden Grows a Mound” is something like a modern Childe death ballad. The acoustic guitar in both of these songs is quite good and plays in a straight forward way. “Ballad of a Young Cursed Fool” is probably the lyrical high point. It has to rank among his best vocals as well, completely acapella, and MacDonald’s accent shouldn’t matter to anyone here. He sings his heart out on that song and leaves blood on the floor. Enter at your own peril. This might be packaged in modern technology, but the content isn’t for anyone weak of heart. It rarely relents musically or lyrically and every song requires MacDonald to assume a “role” in a very theatrical fashion. Spitzer Space Telescope’s Colonies in the Wild Frontier certainly pushes the concept of a song collection into realms never pursued before and those who follow will find ample rewards. Buckle up.
8 out of 10 stars