Dawes is not a group of ingenue folksters, trying to chase the Mumford & Sons bandwagon until it inevitably crashes into the WOMP-WOMP of
bullshit dub-step. Yet they too have been cast into the sepia-toned “revivalist Americana” bandwagon because– to many– music is sounds and opinions, and Dawes sounded like CSNY, The Eagles, and Jackson Browne furtively conceived love-children with each other (the miracles of science!) to create the unassuming North Hills, Dawes’ debut LP. The “Y” of CSNY and the Jackson Browne would seemingly renew their vows on the follow-up, 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong. “Laurel Canyon” would be thrown around a lot too, because the indie music scene is desperate to prove connections to music’s past, while avoiding music’s present.
Dawes first burst onto the scene in 2009, recording their debut album on such a shoestring budget that bass player Wylie Gelber had to use a guitar amp to record his lines. Their dedication to analog–and their monstrous touring efforts– brought an energetic sound to the affair, and an “old” one. People claim that sound is warmer, richer on analog, or at least more natural, and so North Hills was imbued with a sound of the California groups of old, guitars crackling, the bass striding with warm tones and the imperfect cracks of the snare, muddled, not the digital isolated noise we’ve come to accept. It was a fly on the wall record of a live band–it could have been a lost outtake of The Band–and it won the hearts and minds.
Of course, the relentless touring schedule played a large part of that, and the choice of “When My Time Comes” as a featured song in a Chevrolet commercial didn’t hurt either. Goldsmith and company wanted to reflect the touring life in their next LP, Nothing Is Wrong, not romanticizing it, but observations from a life on the road, and the inevitable breaks and bonds along the way. Musically, this truly was an album they could take on the road, energetic ballads with space for solos and sing-alongs, “If I Wanted Someone”, “Fire Away”, “My Way Back Home”, “Time Spent In Los Angeles” all harnessed Dawes instrumental capability and their passion.
One of Dawes’ not so secret weapons is Taylor Goldsmith’s younger brother Griffin, who plays drums, far more than just a capable harmonizer (he’s usually the one who gets backing vocal credit), he’s a fastidious player, practicing for hours and hours on end. I saw that perfectionism in person when he absolutely nailed a cover of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” while playing drums simultaneously. Wylie Gelber is probably the heir apparent to John “The Ox” Entwistle, both in playing ability and in stoic demeanor onstage and keyboardist Tay Strathairn is– in his young thirties– the band’s elder statesman, helping anchor the group that seems determined to be the hardest working rock band in show business.
Energy and sound can go a long way in a group’s success, but Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics are the foundation. He’s arguably the best rock music couplet writer of our time. At least part of this owes to his method – Goldsmith will usually have a title in mind first, and he doesn’t play around with nonsense words to fit a melody. Each line is written to the overall theme, and if it doesn’t fit, it’s forgotten. It’s of little surprise knowing this, that Goldsmith writes his lyrics on a typewriter. A computer is prone, almost welcome, to mistakes and flights of fancy, with a typewriter you have to be succinct. A voracious reader, Goldsmith titled their latest LP, Stories Don’t End from a line in Joan Didion’s novel Democracy
It’s a peculiar choice for those who don’t know what drives Goldsmith– those who like me– were at first drawn to the music, and only slowly let the lyrics sink in. But Goldsmith has always been a writer fascinated by the intricacy of relationships and the human condition. The paraphrasing of a Nietzche line– “You can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back”– in “When My Time Comes” isn’t chosen to sound educated, or bring in abstract ideas for the “coolness” of it,(In contrast, “Oxford Comma” off Vampire Weekend’s debut LP very much sounds like a band playing up the fact that they’re Columbia students) but to echo where Goldsmith is coming from.
He’s been glowingly referred to as profound for his age, 27 as of this album, but for Dawes’ past couple albums, this has been skewed by the relatively bright sonic landscape Goldsmith brought with his songwriting. Frustrated by constantly being labelled as “vintage”, Goldsmith decided to drop the facade on Stories Don’t End. It’s a much darker album, atmosphere plays a much more heightened role here, laying Goldsmith’s thoughts bare. The theme of Democracy looms large as well, with Goldsmith’s narrators not so much inconsistent, as aware of the incongruity of narration. “From A Window Seat”, the first single released from the album, is as much a tale about Goldsmith writing a song about his fears of flight, as it is a song about the fear of flying.
Perception is a constant theme, on “Most People”, Goldsmith writes of a woman whose thoughts on life “makes up an image which resists interpretation which is lately how she likes to see herself” and that alone in her thoughts she believes that her hope and despair is unique when “she doesn’t know that most people feel that same way”. “Just Beneath The Surface” carries the same burden where ostensibly Goldsmith admits there’s always a part of him that will doubt the true intentions behind his actions. It becomes exceedingly obvious through the course of the album that a relationship is responsible for Goldsmith’s devastation, or a sequence of many that followed the same path. But Goldsmith manages to–like the most talented songwriters- make the personal universal and give emotional depth to the characters.
Despondent as it may well be, the arrangements are no one-trick pony. They could have, as Goldsmith amply demonstrated on “Love Is All I Am” and “God Rest My Soul” from North Hills, been successful with a stark acoustic affair. But there’s an infectious propulsion to combat the somber mood, “From A Window Seat” sparkles with a frenetic Warren Zevonesque piano hook, “Someone Will” (my favorite on the album) bounces along an unexpectedly great rhythm section and a jaunting acoustic guitar melody. “Most People”’s arrangement probably bears the most resemblance to their sophomore Nothing Is Wrong, but with a great twist in using harmonics as part of the key guitar hook. “Side Effects” might be the most beautiful arrangement of the bunch, and there isn’t really a weak one, but the dynamics here are exactly what the song calls for; tense and awe-inspiring in all the right places.
This stylistic evolution isn’t without a few stumbles, “Bear Witness” means well, and the arrangement is intriguing, but the lyrical detail sounds ridiculous at parts. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a better song than many could write, and ambitious, but it doesn’t stand up as well among the album. “Hey Lover” is an intriguing choice, a song written by former bandmate Blake Mills. It would be hard to improve on that original, but its nice to see Griffin and Taylor swap verses and have a little fun on the album.
There’s a lot to like here, and Dawes have proven themselves capable of being more than just a “vintage” band, Goldsmith’s songwriting is on full display, and the band amply backs enough intriguing arrangements to keep the affair from being too dark.
Stories Don’t End comes out April 9th, 2013
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