The Washington Post reviews Expandable

January 15, 2009

An evocative paragraph appears on the inside cover of singer-songwriter Dave Ihmels's independently released CD, "Expandable." 

It reads, in part: "More in the earth than in outer space, this is songwriting for any room of the house, but with a hankering for the basement. Morning sun commingling with the late-night blur, favoring not mud nor air but loose dirt." 

Asked who wrote such a poetic metaphor for his music, Ihmels freely admits, "I did." He was inspired, he says, by classic folk albums he listened to as a younger musician. "Remember in the '60s, you opened up the first Peter, Paul and Mary record, and it would say a statement that captured the spirit of it? I modeled this little statement after an idea like that, to try to tell you what you might expect to hear." 

In more concrete comparisons, writers have cited such names as Neil Young, Nick Drake and the Grateful Dead and musical genres such as folk, new age and Americana to describe Ihmels's sound. His CD, released in April, is the type that rewards close listening, as the songs seem simple in a casual listen but unfold to close attention with intriguing subtleties in the arrangements, use of electronic keyboards and harmonies. The sophistication is made more remarkable when one learns that it was recorded in Ihmels's basement. 

"I did it on digital four-track," the musician says, adding that he had some long-distance help. The producer, Steven Putt, is a longtime friend and collaborator who lives in Michigan. Ihmels would record tracks and put them into a kind of online filing cabinet, known as a file transfer protocol, or FTP, site, and Putt would retrieve them. "We never even saw each other during the making of the album; we just sent tracks and chatted on Gmail about it," Ihmels says. "We barely talked on the phone." The result, nonetheless, has a warmth and intimacy that belies such remote, high-tech processes. 

Ihmels, originally from the Philadelphia area, lived in Michigan for six years before moving to the District in 1995. Although he says he wasn't very musically active at the time, "I knew there was a pretty good mid-Atlantic singer-songwriter thing" happening. 

He sees the good and the bad inherent in the local scene. "It can be a tough place," he says of the Virginia-Maryland-District triangle, but he's particularly fond of audiences in the Old Dominion: "There tend to be more 'hanger-outers' in Virginia who will try out a new sound or listen to somebody a little bit longer if they don't know who they are." 

And FireFlies, as he tells it, is a bright spot on the scene: "It's a pretty new place, and some of the various songwriters around town have shifted over to it from some of the showcases." A bar and a restaurant ("They've got a really good clay pizza oven and a ton of beer of tap"), the venue offers live music most nights in a small, casual environment that Ihmels says "reminds me very vaguely of the Iota" in Arlington and is popular with the after-work crowd. 

Ihmels is a bit of a regular himself, appearing often with his "Expandable" collaborator Linda Sublett (vocals, flute) and Todd Baker (electric and acoustic violin), a member of the Cravin' Dogs. The show usually begins, he says, as "Linda does some cover tunes. She has a great voice and is a guitar player. I don't know when she moved to D.C., but she had her own band when she was in Evansville, Illinois, called Chelsea Morning. She'll do the opening set of cover music, and Todd sits in with her and plays violin. And then I join them, and we do my material for the second part of the show." 

That set might include a few covers, such as John Prine, Neil Young, a more obscure Beatles track and . . . "The three of us love doing Warren Zevon 'cause we're all big fans," Ihmels says. 

Along with material from "Expandable," there are some new songs, too. "I've got some material that I'm always working on," he says. "Sometimes, my songs get revisited. I pull new tunes into the live act with Todd and Linda. They do a really interesting thing when they take hold of my music. There's no violin on the album, but it's a prominent piece of the live act. Todd's not one of these soloists who's like, 'Get ready for the big solo.' He really listens and works himself into the sound. We've had a lot of fun together in the last few months, honing our sound."