I was at a fiction reading the other day, and the guy introducing the author said, while talking about Otis Redding’s “messy” songs, that if a love song is too clean, it is probably a lie. This struck me, not as some new revelation, but as an important reminder. I had, at this point, been listening to Dolly Varden’s The Panic Bell for a couple of days, and was drawing a blank on what to say. This quote, it turns out, was what I needed.
Make no mistake about it, Dolly Varden want you to be sad. And the canvas on which the sad lyrics are laid isn’t a bad one. Mark Balletto’s guitar work is the biggest highlight here. He knows how to lay a quick, countrified riff or a few lilting notes into any moment of any song, like he does in the otherwise dull “Small Pockets”. His work is always welcome as the rest of the music is clean and straightforward, but perhaps overly simple. The organs that so effectively open the record on “Complete Resistance” don’t get much use later on in the record, where acoustic-based, straight-up pop tunes take over.
And in these pop tunes is where we’re supposed to find the sadness and worry that singer Steve Dawson and company wanted to pack The Panic Bell with. The problem is that these songs are way too clean, and the simple sound, the pitch-perfect vocals, the underwhelming lyrics all make for a record that is pretty hard to believe.
The lyrics, in particular, are problematic. “The Truth is Told”, the second song on the record sung by Dawson’s wife, Diane Christiansen, has a chorus that could on first listen seem genuine and sad. She tells the story of a woman who is turning her lover away, refusing to answer the phone, hoping he’ll leave her alone. But once the words get into your head, any emotion in the song gets lost. Christiansen sings “I don’t like you, no I don’t / I can’t see you, no I won’t / If you call me, I’ll be cold / I am sorry, the truth is told.” The repetition early of “I don’t like you, no I don’t” is clunky enough, clearly put there to serve a forced rhyme. But at the end of the chorus, where the title comes in, forcing a rhyme ends up making the singer sound terribly condescending. No one would ever say to someone they cared about, “The truth is told.” At least not outside of a British soap opera.
And Dolly Varden seem to be aware of weakness in their lyrics, and try to make up for it with occasional vulgarity. In “Complete Resistance”, Dawson sings about sitting in front of the TV while it “jerks off your feelings” and Christiansen starts off “Small Pockets” with “Daddy got real sad when he saw a hardcore porn show.” Never mind that this second one is overstuffed into a simple melody, but both these “shocking” lines are delivered so awkwardly that they couldn’t possibly be effective, and the lack of conviction behind them negates any shock or energy in the songs.
“Complete Resistance” is a particularly good example of the record’s weaknesses. It is easily the best song, and would be quite good, even good enough to negate the awkward “jerk off” line, if Dolly Varden just showed some restraint. The song goes for nearly six minutes, and the threadbare melody and straight-forward structure just can’t hold the song up that long. For the last two minutes or so, Dawson sings the chorus over and over again, without much of a change in inflection or emotion. There is the slightest hint of ambient guitars and overdubs that could be interesting if they weren’t so buried in the mix under much less interesting music.
This isn’t all to say that Dolly Varden is deliberate in their manipulation, it is more a question of execution. The songs all seem to be missing the intangibles that get into your blood and make you feel them so bad it doesn’t matter if they’re “true.” Maybe the production is too slick, or the guitars not strummed hard enough. Maybe they could stand to sing a note off-key once in a while. The Panic Bell could use a shot in the arm, and maybe then some real panic would seep into this album. As it stands, the music is mathematic in its composition, its parts adding up to something complete but ultimately cold. And Otis Redding knew, and maybe Dolly Varden could learn, there isn’t anything mathematic about sadness.