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(Mid-Fi 303 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/10/2013)
The roots-rock music scene instrumentation has been around for a couple of decades now. It got its start as a reaction to the synthetic pop of the late 1980s and 1990s, or the post-punk alternative grunge rockers. The style, often featuring acoustic instruments, has recently gotten a boost from the high-profile 2013 Grammy Award for Album of the Year given to the British roots rockers Mumford and Sons for the release Babel. But there have been quite a few bands who have had long careers doing that kind of music, some higher-profile than others. And like a lot of music that draws on traditions, artists and bands tend to get better at it with time as they rack up the musical experience.
This week we have a tasteful new roots rock album by a group that has been on the scene for about 19 years now, though with not as high visibility as some. The group is called Dolly Varden, and their new sixth album as a band is called For a While.
Like another prominent eclectic roots rock group, Wilco, Dolly Varden is based in Chicago. Dolly Varden had their start in 1994 and has been remarkably stable over all that time. The two co-leaders are the husband and wife team of Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen. Dawson and Christiansen were previously in a band together called Stump the Host. But when that group broke up, they formed a new one and named it after a species of trout from the Pacific Northwest, which had been the quest independently of the recreational-fishermen fathers of both Dawson and Christiansen. The trout, was in turn, named after a character in Charles Dickens' novel "Barnaby Rudge." The rest of the personnel, with the exception of a change in bass players fairly early on, has also remained stable with Mark Balletto on guitars, Mike Bradburn on bass and Matt Thobe on drums. Though Dolly Varden has toured a fair amount, the band's existence as such has been at a less intense pace. While they have released six albums, they did it over about 19 years, with a couple of years off around 2004 as a couple of members become new parents.
But they are back with a new recording that embodies a lot of the traits that makes the root-rock genre appealing -- no audible synthesizers or studio-processed effects, with acoustic instruments almost always part of the group's sound. The band also manages to avoid most of the cliches of roots rock, such as the slavishly technically retro sound that a lot of younger bands go for. Dolly Varden's songs are intelligent both musically and lyrically and the male-female vocal mix adds to the charm.
The CD gets under way with a song that quickly establishes the appealing quality of the band's music. Del Mar, 1976 is a kind of musical vignette presumably composed of memories from childhood. <<>>
The title track features Ms. Christiansen on the lead vocals. For a While is a kind of complicated love song, while Mark Balletto gives the vaguely Beatles-influenced song some twang with his lap steel guitar. <<>>
More in the rock direction is a song called Done (Done) which is centered around a romantic breakup. <<>>
Walking the Chalkline Again is a kind of classic roots-rock song, but's well done by the band. <<>>
One of the more quirky tunes on the album is Temperamental Complement with interesting lyrics and a curious retro sound featuring an old-fashioned rock organ and the one instance of studio adulterations of the lead vocals. <<>>
For me one of the best tracks on the CD is Saskatchewan to Chicago, presented as an autobiographical song about Dawson's family background. It's nicely done. <<>>
Mayfly is another highlight of the album. It's the lengthiest piece and also comes across as being autobiographical. Its conclusion is being thankful for being able to do what they do. <<>>
On Why Why Why, Dolly Varden is reminiscent of their fellow Chicago roots rock band Wilco. As usual, Dally Varden pulls it off well both musically and lyrically. <<>>
For a While the new sixth album by the long-running but still not-that-widely-known Chicago-based roots rock band Dolly Varden, is a nice example of doing roots rock right. With songs mainly by group co-founder Steve Dawson with some collaboration from his wife and group co-leader Diane Christiansen, the material shows the maturity of a good songwriter who has been at it for close to 20 years, and the band also keeps things understated and tasteful, in the way a good roots rock band should.
Our grade for audio quality is about a A-minus. The sound is generally clean, though the one track with the vocal effects draws demerits, and the CD was typically volume-compressed, undermining the dynamics of the performance and the general immediacy and "life" of the music.
When you talk about roots rock and Chicago, the name Wilco comes up in the mind of most fans, but Dolly Varden has been around just as long and, though considerably less prolific, has come up with a very fine new album.
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