[31 January 2013]
A couple of months ago I finally read a novel that had somehow slipped through the cracks — Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. It reminded me just how luminous plain ol’ everyday English can be in the right hands.
I thought about that as I explored the songs on For a While, the excellent new record by acclaimed Chicago alt-country band Dolly Varden. Singer-guitarist Steve Dawson, who wrote most of the lyrics on the album, paints vivid pictures throughout with understated, conversational language.
Consider the opening song, “Del Mar, 1976”, a slightly melancholy remembrance of a childhood spent in a California beach town. Dawson’s lyrics give us quick, flashing glimpses of life in that time and place: “The twins next door were trouble, la la la / One was a pyromaniac and their mother reeked of alcohol / Spying on them by the water tower with the girl whose name I cannot remember”. I like how much Dawson packs into those few simple lines — the trouble-making twins, the alcoholic mother, the narrator’s spying on them (which could imply some class differences between these kids). The lyrics are both economical and evocative.
Moments like that abound on For a While, Dolly Varden’s sixth full-length record. Dawson and his wife Diane Christiansen are the heart of the band, and they get essential help from guitarist Mark Balletto, bassist Mike Bradburn and drummer Matt Thobe. The players have been together for nearly 20 years now, and while Dolly Varden hasn’t achieved the widespread fame that some predicted it would in the 1990s, it has built a devoted following with a series of smart, melodic albums.
On this latest one, many of the songs contemplate the passage of time. The title track, for instance, plays with the notion of life as both a short sprint and a long haul: “Back in 1965 you were banging a beehive / Poking trouble in the eye, you’re lucky to be alive / In time to realize it’s only for a while”. In the touching ballad “Mayfly”, the narrator recounts dreams in which he’s at various stages of life, from young adulthood to gray-haired old age. After each dream he realizes “We are lucky, and the story is not over yet”. And the standout track “Saskatchewan to Chicago” — I think it’s my favorite on the album — charts a family’s history over multiple generations.
The lyrics are so accessible and the images so vivid that they resemble short fiction, tales that glow in the mind long after you listen to the album. It helps that they come accompanied by a beautifully rendered blend of folk, country and rock. The band decorates the basic guitar-bass-drums spines of the songs with rustic touches such as pedal steel, organ and strings. Dawson and Christiansen both provide vocals (with backing from the rest of the band), and the whole mix is as warm and soothing as a hot toddy on a freezing cold night.
For a While contains some up-tempo rockers, but on the whole this is a contemplative album, one to get lost in. My advice to someone listening to it for the first time: The initial spin might not blow you away, but give it some time. And don’t be surprised if sometime later, you find yourself thinking about strange small-town twins whose mother always reeks of alcohol.