Saturday, March 26, 2016

Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands

Dawes have always been primarily a live band. When I started getting into them back around the release of 2011's stellar Nothing is Wrong, I remember reading, on numerous occasions, something along the lines of "They're good on record, but they're GREAT live." Even the band has said that they much prefer the free-form improvisational feel of their live shows to the meticulous record, re-record, and overdub process of the recording studio.

For all of those reasons, the band's third album—2013's Stories Don't End—was both a surprise and an anomaly. After two records with a looser, more classic feel, Stories Don't End was very much a studio project. The songs were crisper and more concise, the melodies drifted in a more pop-focused direction, and the production got a little glossier. I personally thought the album was a triumph—the band's best, if I had to pick. At least until now. But the guys in Dawes didn't enjoy the recording process, and ultimately decided to go in the opposite direction on the follow-up.

There's a conflicting ideology out there when it comes to judging great live acts on record. Needless to say, no artist wants people to say that their albums "don't capture the electricity of their live show," but at some point, just about every great live act has faced this complaint, from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to U2 to Counting Crows to Matt Nathanson. I remember, back when I started listening to Matt Nathanson, the buzz was always that his concerts were very funny and musically involving, but his albums were mostly flat and lifeless. He beat that assessment by going poppier and more introspective on 2007's Some Mad Home, and Dawes did something similar with Stories Don't End. The album didn't exactly capture the feel of their live show; instead, it used the studio almost as an extra band member, to craft the songs into something leaner and more immediate.

That's one way to overcome the idea that your records aren't as good as your live shows: to make a record that doesn't sound anything like your live shows. The other way, of course, is to record an album like it’s a live show, capturing improvisation and mistakes, incorporating very few overdubs or edits, and just allowing the freewheeling imperfection of the performances to make the songs perfect. Which approach works better depends on the band and the preferences of the listener, but with All Your Favorite Bands, their fourth full-length album, Dawes have at least officially tried both.

Frontman Taylor Goldsmith—repeatedly cited as this generation's Jackson Browne—told Rolling Stone that All Your Favorite Bands is Dawes' "most live sounding and most true sounding" album. Unlike last time, he didn't plan any guitar solos before he played them. Instead, the band left entire sections of songs unwritten, open to improvisational flow. The result is an album with the unpredictable feel of a Dawes live show, the sprawl of Laurel Canyon, and the color of '70s Mellow Mafia folk-rock, from the Eagles to Crosby, Stills & Nash, all the way to Browne himself.

If this all sounds rather familiar for Dawes, that's because it is—at least in part. The band's first two albums, Nothing is Wrong and 2009's North Hills, were both classified very much as Laurel Canyon folk rock. Dawes expressed a desire to get away from that sound on Stories Don't End, and to stand more on their own rather than be defined by comparisons and parallels. That impulse led them to record a more modern-sounding folk record, but All Your Favorite Bands reverts to the band's wheelhouse by sounding anything but modern.

That's not to say that All Your Favorite Bands is a step back or even a retread. Instead, it's a return trip to the well that provided Nothing is Wrong, but one made by a band that has gained significant perspective, clout, and chops in the four years that have now passed since that record. Stories Don't End may have taught Dawes the kind of studio band they wanted to be (or, more accurately, didn't want to be), but they've also become a better band, period, over the past few years, and All Your Favorite Bands is the payoff.

If there's been a tighter full band record released in 2015, I certainly haven't heard it yet. The improvisation sections (like the towering Darkness on the Edge of Town-esque guitar solo on "I Can't Think About it Now," or the slow-burn jamming of 10-minute closer "Now That It's Too Late, Maria") are loose and thrilling without ever meandering—not an easy balance to strike, and one Dawes themselves struggled with on their debut. The entire record genuinely feels like a time warp, not just because it sounds classic—though it does—but also because these 48 minutes really seem to fly by. There's something so luxuriant about spending the better part of an hour listening to these guys jam. With enough improvisation to make the whole thing feel natural, the kind of pristine melodies and striking lyricism that reward repeat listens, and a larger helping of terrific guitar work than I've heard on a record in ages, All Your Favorite Bands is an easy album of the year contender.

The flip side of all of this is that someone could easily say this album runs together. The songs aren't as immediately distinct as a lot of the gems from Nothing is Wrong or Stories Don't End were; said another way, there's nothing here as instantly gratifying as "A Little Bit of Everything" or "Most People." But the album arguably works better as a cohesive whole because of how the songs flow and link into each other. Even the album's "catchiest songs"—the one-take first single "Things Happen," or the flickering sunset wash of "Don't Send Me Away,"—shine brightest as pieces of the whole. Where Stories Don't End really placed a lot of emphasis on Goldsmith's vocal melodies, this album is more focused on the vibes and grooves the band finds while playing together. You can't totally get an appreciation for that aspect of the music on first play, or without really focusing on the album all the way through.

Indeed, there are nuances and detail to All Your Favorite Bands that listeners will only ever discover if they invest some real time in the record. How Dawes build these songs, layering them as they go, is something truly stunning. This isn't a band that would ever loop instrumental parts for verses and choruses, and just leave it to the frontman to mix things up. Instead, every song on All Your Favorite Bands is dynamic, and paying close attention to how the instrumentation morphs and fills out over the course of different tunes is one of the biggest joys the album has to offer.

The best example of this, naturally, is "And Now It's Too Late, Maria," simply because it has nine minutes and 46 seconds to work with. The song begins almost whisper quiet, though all the band members are there from the start: Griffin Goldsmith with a halting drumbeat, Taylor with his guitar, Wylie Gelber providing wisps of bass work, and keyboardist Tay Straitharn coloring in the fringes with B3 organ. As the song evolves, though, everyone's contributions become flashier. Gelber's bass grows louder, funkier, and more confident; Straitharn layers surging organs with organic grand piano; Griffin's playing gets jazzier and more virtuosic; and Taylor switches from subtle Clapton guitar licks to not one, but two extended solo sections.

"Maria" is a master class in how to build a song, and one of the few situations I can think of, in all of music, where a 10-minute tune actually feels too short. On the other hand, the John Mayer-flavored "Somewhere Along the Way" makes arguably the album's biggest mistake by fading out early. The song kicks into a higher gear three-quarters in, with a stunning three-part vocal harmony break and yet another pristine guitar solo from Taylor. But just as the band starts jamming and getting into a groove, the song fades to black. It's a curious decision, and perhaps the only instance where All Your Favorite Bands doesn't fully deliver on its potential.

If a misplaced fade-out is your biggest problem, though, you've pretty much made a masterpiece, and All Your Favorite Bands could very feasibly be classified as such. From the timeless production (provided by David Rawlings, a guy who specializes in making records that sound like they came from the earth), to the way every band member remains completely present and pivotal for every second of every song, this album truly makes me proud to be a Dawes fan. Taylor Goldsmith's lyricism, also, has never been better, pairing images of intense loneliness ("The flicker of a candle looks like a one way conversation/Reacting to something that nobody else can see/While I sit at the table and I relive the whole situation/Until the valet who wants to go home comes in and gives me my keys") with poetry of wry acceptance ("To be completely honest, I think I know how it ends/The universe will keep on expanding while we discuss particulars of just being friends") for a unique and weirdly uplifting take on the break-up album trope.

Perhaps the most patently Dawes song on the album, though, is the title track, a rich bon-voyage of a piano ballad that no other band on the planet could have possibly written. "I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it be/I hope your brother's El Camino runs forever," Goldsmith sings on the chorus. "I hope the world sees the same person that you've always been to me/And may all your favorite bands stay together."

From the beginning, Dawes have always come across as a band full of music geeks. Their albums are special because they don't just reflect the musical abilities of four talented players, but also their infectious love for music. The first time I heard Nothing is Wrong, I could immediately picture these guys geeking out in a record store together, or getting drunk while taking turns picking out which pieces of vinyl to spin on the turntable. So when Goldsmith toasts someone and says "may all your favorite bands stay together," it's serious business. It doesn't matter if he's bidding farewell to an ex-girlfriend, or to a friend who is moving across the country. The effect of the statement is the same either way: a loving and genuine well-wish from one music obsessive to another, entirely devoid of bitterness, cynicism, or regret. It's the perfect encapsulation of who Dawes are as a band, and of how they probably view life in general: that no matter the heartbreak or circumstance, the world will keep spinning just as long as the music keeps playing.

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