Album Review: Stories Don’t End, Dawes

image

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.


Top Picks: “Someone Will”, “Most People”, “Stories Don’t End”, “From A Window Seat”, “Side Effects”


Stories Don’t End comes out April 9th, 2013


Grab Stories Don’t End (digital) on iTunes

Grab Stories Don’t End (Vinyl, CD, and digital) on Amazon

Summer Gems 2012: A Mixtape

To grab the mix, either click on the image or the text.

Track-listing:
 

1. Peoples – Cheers Elephant

2. The Fritz – Cruiser

3. The Walk – Mayer Hawthorne

4. Everyone Knows – Vacationer

5. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) – Talking Heads

6. Milk – Theme Park

7. The Hale Bop – Mystery Jets

8. She’s So Scandalous – Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears

9. Fletcher – Blitzen Trapper

10. Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder

11. Skin It Back – Little Feat

12. Carrying The Torch – Generationals

13. My Baby Is The Real Thing – Allen Toussaint 

14. Come On Sock It To Me – Syl Johnson

15. Got To Be Some Changes Made – The Staple Singers

16. Scratch My Back – Otis Redding

17. Knock On Wood – Eddie Floyd

18. Blackmail – Robert Palmer

19. Ain’t Gonna Stop – Natural Child

20. Greatest Hits – Mystery Jets

21. If You Let Me Be Your Anchor – Dawes

(Image Courtesy of We Are Handsome)
 

I’ve been a fan of Josh Tillman since well… he was Josh Tillman. The beautiful “Steel on Steel” from Vacilando Territory Blues, his 2009 LP was what first caught my eye. However, Josh Tillman is a man of many hats as he’s been the drummer for Fleet Foxes and most recently, adorned the nom de plum Father John Misty and come out with his Sub Pop debut Fear Fun. It’s already gathered praise from indie greats like Blitzen Trapper and Dawes (whose bass player, Wylie Gelber was assistant producer on the album) and cuts through with sonic clarity that hasn’t felt so earnest in years.  Tillman described the development of the album as “I got into my van with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and started driving down the coast with nowhere to go” yet the album itself doesn’t wander. “Nancy From Now On”, the second song on the album almost sounds like the bastard child of The Beach Boys, The BeeGees and Harry Nilsson but without either’s excess. A great song, and an equally great album. Plus, that album artwork is fantastic.


Nancy From Now On- Father John Misty 

Top Ten Albums of The Year, Roots Rock Edition: Nothing Is Wrong By Dawes, Middle Brother by Middle Brother

(Taken from The Album Isn’t Overrated)

Today’s music ain’t got the same soul, I like that old kind of rock and roll

Dawes- Nothing Is Wrong

Picture-81


Naturally, this is a little bit of a cheat for my top ten list, for these are two albums that are thematically linked but could stand on their own merits for deserving the top ten status.  Middle Brother is of course made up of John J. McCauley III of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit, but to confuse you more, I’ll start with Dawes.

Back in 2009 when Taylor Goldsmith and co released their stunning debut North Hills many fell under the spell of their rootsy, classic California rock sound.  The record’s charming analog sound boosted by the bare bones recording process, the band couldn’t even afford a proper bass amp.  With the success of singles like “When My Time Comes” and “That Western Skyline”, Dawes burst onto the independant music scene, and became quick friends with rock legends like Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson.  Yet for a band often compared to the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Dawes proved they were equally capable of crafting their own material, bouyed by Goldsmith’s succinct, yet poetic couplets that anchor each song.  

For their next LP, Dawes wanted to capture more of a live feel, songs that both reflect life on the road as well as the travels along the road of life. Their sound would also be considerably more polished than on the earthy North Hills, while keeping the same roots format. That album would become Nothing Is Wrong.

The album starts on a Jackson Browne-esque note, with the propulsive “Time Spent In Los Angeles” featuring Bennot Tenoch (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on the organ. Goldsmith crafts a narrative of a man reconciling his past and the road with lines like “These days my friends don’t seem to know me/ Without a suitcase in my hand/ And when I’m standing still/ I seem to disappear” “When people ask me where I’ve come from/ To see what that says about a man/ I only end up giving bad directions/That never lead them there at all.” The themes of self identity and the passage of time come up again and again in this 11 song album, but it’s to Dawes’s credit that they don’t drag.  The harmony break on “My Way Back Home” is gorgeous, fading into a great guitar solo.“Fire Away” features blistering guitar work behind a nice call and response interlude. “So Well” boasts some of the tighter vocal work on the album, and there’s something you can find you like about every song.

Goldsmith’s vocals provide a solid warmth throughout, and the interplay between him and the band is top notch (which includes his brother Griffin, on drums).  Griffin also proves to be a capable singer, leading the band on “How Far We’ve Come” and providing solid call and response vocals on “Fire Away” a song that also features Jackson Browne. “Million Dollar Bill” might contain some of the best lyrics on any song this year, both a song of longing and scorn, for which Taylor provides lines like “When it hits me that she’s gone/ I think I’ll be a movie star/ play the finest men the world has ever seen/ so when these lovers that she’s found/ show her ways they learned to talk to her/ behind each perfect word there will be a little bit of me.” Come for the music, stay for the harmonies and lyrics.

Label: ATO

Length: 51:49

Listen If You Like: The Eagles, Crosby Stills Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne

Mood: Driving on a Sunny Day, Sitting by a Fire at Night

Top Picks: 

“Million Dollar Bill”

“If I Wanted Someone”

“So Well”

“Fire Away”

Production: 8/10

Lyrics: 9/10

Vocals: 9/10

Overall: 9.1/10

Middle Brother- Middle Brother

Super-group is a label that is often doomed to fail, whether it’s by a lack of comraderie or just each others egos getting in the way. Middle Brother is luckily blessed to have neither problem, they just want to have fun making music.  And McCauley, Goldsmith, and Vasquez tear through a bunch of craggy folk and rock to make Middle Brother a great album to listen to.It’s not often that you can find three lead singer/songwriters sharing the spotlight and do so seemlessly (Monsters of Folk, on the other hand seemed more like a solo record by each artist rather than a cohesive effort) but this is what makes Middle Brother stand out among its 2011 peers.

McCauley has a voice that you will either love or hate, but if you happen to find yourself in the former camp (think of a gruff nasal Bob Dylan) Goldsmith and Vasquez manage to provide the perfect harmonic backing. They pull this off in spades on the album opener “Daydreaming” that features some sparkling acoustic guitar work that wouldn’t be out of place on a James Taylor record.  Elsewhere, Middle Brother pumps up the fun on tracks like “Blue Eyes” and “Me Me Me”, the latter being probably one of my favorite songs of the year, a song that never takes itself too seriously and it could have just as easily been an outtake from the John and Paul session that produced “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. Meanwhile “Someday” is a true blast from the past, featuring a 50’s melody.

“Portland” is the one cover on the album (though its to their credit that it fits organically with the rest of the material) originally done by The Replacements but once again the harmonies are terrific and the acoustic work is charming.

These songs aren’t always the rollicking type, Middle Brother likes to inhabit the more downtrodden aspects of the rock lifestyle, finding itself an equal muse to happy drunks and sad drunks. The Matt Vasquez led “Theater” finds itself sonically connected to Neil Young’s slower numbers, while Taylor Goldsmith led numbers like “Wilderness” and “Blood and Guts” describes the ravaged soul of a broken hearted man.

Overall this album is a blast, you can feel the respect the members have for this style of music, not one bit is kitchy, but a ramshakle, loving respect for true rock and roll.

Label: Partisan

Length: 48:57

Listen If You Like: Any of the members individual bands (Dawes, Deer Tick, Delta Spirit), Neil Young, The Replacements

Mood:  Visceral, Wistful, Hitting the Bottle (Both for the good and the bad)

Top Picks: 

“Daydreaming”

“Blue Eyes”

“Someday”

“Me Me Me”

“Portland”

Production: 8/10

Lyrics: 8/10

Vocals: 9/10

Overall: 8.5/10