Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dawes - Stories Don't End

HUB Records, 2013

A few years ago, when the sounds of Dawes’ sophomore record Nothing is Wrong first reached my ears, it was like a blast from the past. Equal ingredients ’70s Laurel Canyon folk-rock (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, etc.) and ‘90s roots/alt-country (Whiskeytown, Counting Crows, The Wallflowers), the music this L.A.-based quartet was cultivating hit almost every one of my sonic sweet spots. Somewhere between the soaring, sun-kissed guitar solos, the B3-organ swells, the rich vocal harmonies, and the thoughtful lyricism, there was a band that absolutely could have been a legendary, multi-platinum act three decades earlier, but one that was probably never going to take the radio waves by storm in the here and now. Apparently the band sensed that feeling too: no longer content with simply being really good folk-rock revivalists, Dawes have evolved on their new album—titled Stories Don’t End—to a point where it feels like anything is possible for their future endeavors.

From the moment Stories Don’t End bursts open, with a lush vocal crescendo at the top of “Just Beneath the Surface,” it’s clear that these guys are a different band than they were a few years ago. Once regarded as a terrific live outfit that could never quite capture the electric charge of their performances on record, Dawes have clearly learned to use the studio to their advantage this time around. Credit producer Jacquire King, who covers these 12 tunes in a warmer and more consistent layer of studio sheen than we’ve seen on past albums. With his strong and assured presence behind the boards, the band seems to open up a bit more here, lending album highlights like “Just Beneath the Surface” and “From the Right Angle” a grandiose, arena-ready sensibility, or turning the piano-led first single “From a Window Seat” into a disorienting pop-rock trip. When a frantic guitar solo kicks through the wall on the latter, we know we’re in good hands.

If the opening of the record is strong though, it’s the mid-section where these guys really hit their stride. The chiming guitar chords that open “Most People” herald one of the best and most majestic songs frontman Taylor Goldsmith has ever written. The song builds effortlessly, carried along by an infectious refrain and one of Goldsmith’s finest vocal performances to date. And when the band dials it back down for the outro—a call and response fugue between Taylor and his brother Griffin (the band’s drummer)—you’ll have trouble doing anything but hit “Replay.” The powerful, cathartic build of “Something Common” is even better, beginning on a subtle, restrained note (“All my mornings start with the alarm clock/Every dream gets stopped before the end,” Goldsmith sings at the outset), and building to a shout-it-to-the-rafters conclusion that ranks among the best musical moments I’ve heard all year. “‘Cause all the love and friends and happiness that ever came my way/Revealed themselves the moment I stopped watching,” rolls the final chorus, exploding from the speakers like a pure and fierce confession of the heart. “‘Cause it’s not faith that comes from miracles, but miracles that come from faith/And I’m sure that they’ve got something in common.” Perfect.

The above is just one lyrical gem in a song rife with them, from a band with a better way with words than most working today. Sure, that song is also graced by a gorgeous bed of instrumentation, from cinematic piano chords to emotive electric guitar lines, but it only reaches the next level when you sit back and let the poetic beauty of the words course through you. And that’s the case with the rest of this record as well, from the Springsteenian characters of “Bear Witness” (the granddaughter who's still working at the movies, letting all her boyfriends in for free), to the haunting cliffhanger of “Stories Don’t End” (“They go on and on, just someone stops listening...”), and certainly to the glorious, travel-worn troubadour tribute that is “From the Right Angle” (“I need a cold beer from a dressing room, I need a string of dates back out/I think there are a few of us that still belong out on the road”). If you’ve been looking for a collection of songs to soundtrack the upcoming summer months, songs that could ring from the stage of an evening music festival as fireworks explode in the sky, or songs that could ring through your car as you cruise down a sunburned highway, look no further.

Throughout its 12 tracks, Stories Don’t End strikes a perfect balance between lyrical ingenuity and musical accessibility, between classic rock throwback and modern musical relevance, between instrumental virtuosity and full-bodied, beating-heart passion. Goldsmith’s songs are catchy and comfortable, but they’re never easy. You can imagine something like “From a Window Seat” or “Just Beneath the Surface” making minor waves on college radio—probably more than anything off previous albums—but it’s only with time and intimate attention to the lyrical and musical details that the layers of these songs begin to peel away. I could easily (and happily) waste an evening digging through these songs, obsessing over cryptic lines from Goldsmith and trying to decipher precisely what they mean, or marveling at vintage-sounding musical passages and playing classic albums alongside them in a quest to figure out the band's every influence. Hell, even the numbers that feel more “minor,” like the raucous cover of Blake Mills’ “Hey Lover,” or the rollicking, bass-driven country of “Someone Will,” suggest that spending an afternoon with these guys and their record collections would be any music fan’s dream come true.

But ultimately what matters most is that there are no weak moments here: the songs are great, the album sequencing and pacing is faultless, and the band has never sounded better. And while elements of the ‘70s Laurel Canyon scene are still evident here, they’re surrounded by so many other nuances of folk and rock music’s back pages that they no longer feel like the obvious focus. Stories Don’t End, as a result,is neither a throwback album nor an entirely modern one. It is, quite simply, a Dawes album. It’s the sound of a young band coming into their own unique musical niche and making the record they’ve been reaching for since they first hit the scene in 2009. And if there’s any justice, the record it will be a sounding board for a long and storied career: from all indications, it seems like this band has what it takes to be one of the greats.

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