Breakfast For Dogs, Don Ross’ first solo guitar outing since 1999’s Passion Session, brings just enough innovation to familiar grounds, making it a disc worth hearing. It may seem that Ross’ relaxed virtuosity modulates within the boundaries of his comfort zone, but the range he is capable of exploring is actually quite broad. The tunes on this album are delivered with an unwavering enthusiasm for the instrument, and his connection with the novelty of the guitar is a theme that moves the listener through these tracks. What differentiates this collection from albums by some of Ross’ peers is that it doesn’t aim to be merely a podium for “gee-whiz” technical prowess, like the worst of Leo Kottke’s albums, but is an honestly played record, one that doesn’ t hide its weaknesses or carry a crutch.
The obsession with rhythm on this set of tunes has arguable merit. On one hand, the persistent 4/4 beat that most of the songs are anchored by, such as on “From France to India” and “Crazy”, provides a rhythmic underpinning closest to ragtime, with syncopated beats in the bass. On the other hand, the treatment of the melody and overall playing style is colored by a funky, almost disco feel, and so a song that might flourish were it given the chance to walk on its own two feet comes off as smarmy and cloying, with a snappy backbeat like so much mid-90’ s pop rock.
Departing from this, however, is “Red Ships Take Off In The Distance” which, perhaps unintentionally, has an opening similar to a couple tracks on David Grubbs’ The Spectrum Between. It is these unexpected shifts that keep up interest in a note-heavy set like this. When the mallet-like sounds of “Obrigado (Egberto)” are introduced, it is a foreign sound to an otherwise fairly production-free recording, and the tonal treatment of the guitar – highlighting the mids – nudges this recording away from the as-nature-intended sound of the album.
Had they taken a rubber-stamp approach to the treatment of the guitar on all its tracks, I wouldn’t have liked the album any less, but as it is, the subtle production flairs do actually give some welcome variation and color. The strangest departure in recording technique comes in the second half of closing track “Crazy/Michael, Michael, Michael”, when out of a hyperactive triplet finger-buster the entire track is widened by spacious reverb, and Ross seamlessly drifts into a convincing Taproot-inspired series of passages. It took me until the second listen of the song to pick up on the (now obvious) aural tip of the hat to Michael Hedges, also referenced in the title. It is a touching, if late, memorial for a gifted man whose legacy is essential to the musical developments heard on this album.
I was surprised by Breakfast For Dogs, not being an enthusiast for anything even whispering “New Age” or Windham Hill or, as it stands now, CandyRat, but my appreciation for the lyrical approach Ross displays here is almost enough to make me re-evaluate these more intentional and pop-oriented modern guitar players. There’s enough flash here that I am certain that I would overdose on its verbosity long before it attained top 20 status on my personal favorites list, but that an artist such a Don Ross can reach out to even steadfast meat-and-potato pickers like myself says quite a lot about the accessibility and novelty of his playing.