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Dawes: All Your Favorite Bands
by George Graham
(Hub Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/8/2015)
The contemporary alternative rock movement – and calling it “alternative” these days is really an oxymoron – is full of musical cliches. Even more so is the commercial pop scene generated more by computers and the sonic equivalent CGI movie effects than by real performers. So as a reaction to that, the roots rock scene has been flourishing, drawing on the supposed honesty and sense of the history of rock, folk, blues and country. Roots rockers are also not without their own cliches that have crept into some of the recordings of various bands, both musically an lyrically.
This week we have a group that is outwardly in the classic roots rock mode, but have, over the past few years, proven to have a lot more depth than many on the scene. They are called Dawes, and their new fourth release in six years, is named All Your Favorite Bands. It’s an album that combines the literate approach of a singer-songwriter with understated tasteful instrumentation.
Dawes is based in Southern California, and was founded by two brothers, singer-songwriter guitarist Taylor and drummer Griffin Goldsmith, along with bassist Wylie Gilber. Their current keyboard man Tay Strathairn joined in 2010 after the group’s first album North Hills was released the previous year. According to Wikipedia, the band was originally named Simon Dawes before the departure of Blake Mills, who was co-songwriter. Their original sound was said to be post-punk before they gravitated to folk-rock. Like many in the roots rock movement, they unashamedly draw on influences from the past such as the 1960s-70s folk-rock groups, but they bring their own approach. Taylor Goldsmith is the dominant member of Dawes, as the sole songwriter for most of the material, the lead vocalist, and lead guitarist. His songs are on the par with the best of the folkies. Indeed he was invited to be part of the project last year called the New Basement Tapes with people like Elvis Costello, writing new music for long-lost Bob Dylan lyrics. Goldsmith conducted himself quite well on that project, and perhaps a little of that rubbed off on the new Dawes album.
While the band is Southern California-based they journeyed to Nashville for the recording of All Your Favorite Bands. There they worked with David Rawlings, the partner of neo-traditionalist folkie Gillian Welch, who puts in a cameo background vocal appearance. So this album does take a folkier kind of approach, not so much in terms of strumming acoustic guitars, but in a way that focuses on the lyrical aspect of Taylor Goldsmith’s compositions. Most of them tend to be sad songs about breakups and how the former significant other is missed. But it’s all nicely done, never maudlin and often with some skillful turns of phrase. The songs on the album tend to be longer, and allow for some instrumental sections and guitar solos by Taylor Goldsmith, which is a but uncommon for a group whose music is so lyrically focused.
Leading off is a song called Things Happen which summarizes the band’s sound and strengths: appealing rock with a kind of folky undercurrent. The lyrical theme of ended relationships is right there on this first song. <<>>
Those who see in the band influence of old California folkies and singer-songwriters need look no further than the following track Somewhere Along the Way. Once can’t help but hear some Jackson Browne influence. The band by the way, performed with Jackson Browne at one of the Occupy Wall Street events. Lyrically, the song is a standout. <<>>
The album’s title All Your Favorite Bands comes from a song of that name. It’s another of those breakup songs, giving best wishes to one’s ex. <<>>
One of the best, most interesting tracks is Don’t Send Me Away, also on the subject of a relationship apparently on the rocks. Whether it was a conscious influence or not, I was reminded of the Scottish band The Blue Nile by the track. And that’s a compliment. <<>>
There are two rather lengthy tunes that feature some instrumental segments. I Can’t Think About It Now is one of them. It also features some added backing vocalists including Gillian Welch. It’s not in the style one usually associates with Gillian Welch. <<>>
Another sad song that really sounds like one is Waiting for Your Call. It’s done as a slow waltz, and despite the yearning quality of the lyrics, the track is also one of the highlights of the album for its tastefulness. <<>>
With a bit more of a rock quality is a song called Right on Time. The lyrics on this one are a bit more inscrutable, but literate. <<>>
The album ends with its longest song, at just under 10 minutes, not exactly the usual for a folky roots-rock band. It’s called Now That It’s Too Late, Maria. It’s another sad but nicely done breakup song. <<>> It does provide some opportunities for guitar solos at a relaxed pace. <<>>
All Your Favorite Bands the new fourth release by the California quartet Dawes, is probably their best yet. Principal songwriter and lead vocalist Taylor Goldsmith is a first-rate composer and lyricist. The band tends to avoid some of the now-familiar stylistic ingredients that a lot of roots rock band feel obligate to include. Instead, Dawes relie on first-rate material, and tasteful performance and production to distinguish themselves. With producer David Rawlings, the album has an unfailingly honest, unpretentious sound that brings out the best in the songs. While not really a retro band, they make no attempt to hide their influence by some of the notable such groups and performers from the past.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A-minus.” The sound is commendably clean most of the time and free from unnecessary studio effects. The dynamic range is better than a lot of contemporary pop albums, but it would have been better still without the volume compression that record company people falsely think is necessary.
There are a lot of roots rock bands on the scene these days. They provide a nice antidote to the total superficiality and artifice of commercial pop. But Dawes, on their new album is clearly a cut above most.
This is George Graham.
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