Slow Dakota’s ‘Suite For Voice and Ukulele’ : A Review and a Conversation

PJ Sauerteig as Slow Dakota makes music that feels aged in an oak barrel for decades, secretly and effortlessly within some nondescript stone-lined cellar. A Midwest-soaked sound that once poured and allowed to breathe displays vibrant fall aromas and quaint melodies made of earth, sky, and sephia-tinted memories. Sauerteig is a storyteller, and his songs feel like character studies. They’re narratives about people and places that live in simpler times and less busy places. Past releases like The Ascension of Slow Dakota and Rumspringa felt like classic literature put to music. Precise, gentle chamber pop with folk accents that would go well paired with a nice merlot, long forgotten acquaintances, or an old photo album thought a victim of time and many moves. Stringed instruments intertwine with piano and subtle electronics to take you from your place on this earth to a quieter spot where you can reflect.

PJ Sauerteig has returned with a new Slow Dakota EP called Suite For Voice and Ukulele, and as the title suggests it is mainly voice and ukulele. With five songs under 20 minutes, Suite For Voice and Ukulele is a beautiful collection of humble song works. With past releases that came together with concepts, the only thru-line here is the ukulele and PJ. He writes five songs and ornaments them sparingly, allowing the words and the delivery of those words to speak for themselves. The result is an exquisite collection made for overcast walks and the dying of the light.

So where does one get an idea to write a suite for voice and ukulele? In Slow Dakota’s case it began with the instrument. “Last winter I was perusing a very old music store in the West Village and I stumbled upon a huge ukulele – turned out to be a “baritone ukulele”, said Sauerteig during a recent conversation we had about the new Slow Dakota EP. “I’ve always loved the ukulele, but sometimes it has a rather tinny, silly high pitch, which explains why it’s usually a novelty instrument. But this uke was deeper, warmer, richer – almost like a lute. I confess to a deep love of Renaissance and Medieval music, and I adore the stringed instruments of that age – the baritone uke reminded of them, and I was able to skip the hard work of actually learning those period instruments. I kept the uke near my bed during my second year of law school, and would tinker around with it while falling asleep at night, in the dark. Gradually, over several months, a few melodies and chord progressions emerged from these late-at-night noodling.”

With the baritone uke sitting by his bed and the late night noodling turning to song ideas and melodies, PJ had an idea for a full-length album about a tornado. How do we get from a tornado to a suite for voice and ukulele? “Last year I was hoping to release a very long album about a tornado, but these new ukulele songs presented a puzzle – they didn’t fit thematically, lyrically, or musically with the other tornado songs I was writing. They were their own exclusive clique, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to force them in” says Sauerteig. Then a meeting with an old friend presented a solution to the album dilemma. “Then, a few months ago, I was having lunch with C Ray Harvey(of Omaha, Alaska) at the Hoppy Gnome! on a visit home to Ft Wayne” explained Sauerteig. “I shared my predicament with him, and he, very bluntly, and very brilliantly said – why not just carve out the uke songs into their own separate EP – why force them into a body of work in which they clearly don’t belong? That settled it. C Ray ended up singing on the EP’s first track, “Incarnation” – my favorite song on the whole thing! His gravel-like voice is a perfect compliment to the giddy melody.”

“Incarnation” is a wonderful track to open the EP with. There’s a bit of Bright Eyes and a bit of Califone inside the uplift of the track. And as Sauerteig explained, the gruffer vocal of C. Ray Harvey blends brilliantly with Sauerteig’s rustic arrangement. The next track is the gentle sway of “Red Rose”, a beautiful track that is made all the more beautiful by the backing vocals of Sarah Sauerteig. “Wicker Chair” is bigger in sound, with an almost War On Drugs vibe in the middle. It never gets too big, though. Sauerteig keeps it reeled in and still very intimate.

Earlier albums have had the continuity of a narrative, in-particular The Ascension of Slow Dakota. I asked Sauerteig if these songs were connected in some way narratively. “The EP doesn’t tell one coherent story – each of the songs stand alone” explained Sauerteig. “In the past, I’ve written and enjoyed concept albums held together by one linear story. But with this “Suite”, the songs are unified not by their lyrics or central themes, but simply by a shared instrumentation – voice and ukulele.”

“More Than A Hangman” and “The Painter” beautifully coalesce at the end of this stunning EP. Intricately picked strings and subtle sonic touches build a world of longing and dreams tip toeing around each other.

With the release of Suite For Voice and Ukulele, Slow Dakota made a video for the the stunning “Red Rose”. In it, PJ Sauerteig sits in an old, dilapidated building and plays the song live amongst the scattered remains of another time and place. I asked PJ where the concept for the video came from. “The video was shot by a longtime collaborator of mine, Brittany. She goes by Brittabug on Instagram. She’s a wonderful photographer / videographer based in Michigan, and we shot the video in a defunct, sort-of-condemned general goods store going to ruin on the edge of Amish country – outside Fremont, IN, where my family has a little summer cottage. Felt right for “Red Rose”, which is about a very penetrating feeling of sterility.”

Suite For Voice and Ukulele is yet another exquisite and beautifully put together release by Slow Dakota, aka PJ Sauerteig. PJ demonstrates that sometimes less is more, and simple arrangements and quiet restraint can have just as much of an effect as dense productions. With the mastering done by the genius Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, Suite is a masterstroke of baroque pop and Midwestern chamber folk.

Purchase Slow Dakota’s Suite For Voice and Ukulele here. It is available now via Massif Records.

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