If emotional honesty is your true measure of how good a CD is, then I urge you to check out the outstanding and resilient strains offered by Chicago’s Dolly Varden on their fourth and latest release Forgiven Now. This is a gem of an album that features strong songwriting that really captures moods and emotions; anyone putting in the time to really listen here will be more than rewarded—Dolly Varden have outdone themselves.
Since 1995, this quintet quietly has been forging roots music that mixes rock and pop and folk and country in a manner that is heavy on the heartfelt and light on the clichéd. Now that Whiskeytown and Dashboard Confessional and Blue Mountain and their protégés have sparked a veritable alt-country revival, one wonders if perhaps it is time for Dolly Varden to get their rightful acclaim with a larger audience.
Named after a colorful species of hard-to-catch trout, Dolly Varden is fronted by the talented husband and wife team of Stephen Dawson and Diane Christiansen, who seem to know plenty about what goes on in the minds of lovers. Fellow musicians Mark Balletto on guitar, Michael Bradburn on bass and Matt Thobe on drums round out the Dolly Varden team (this lineup has remained steady for a full seven years and counting—a rare feat in this modern world of revolving musical personnel). Added into the mix this time around is some phenomenal pedal steel work by notable Nashville session man Al Perkins (Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and everyone else you can think of).
Once again, Dolly Varden has turned to producing wunderkind Brad Jones, who had produced their previous effort, 2000’s Dumbest Magnets. Jones serves each song well; he gets his trademark clean production across here with vocals up front and just the right spare mix of supporting instrumentation.
What’s rare and special about Dolly Varden first off is the quality of the vocals—both male and female. Dawson has a wonderful voice, as does Christiansen—and what’s more, they sound great together (with a real warmth and chemistry that recalls the harmonies of Emmylou and Gram way back when). However, the real magic is in the songwriting—these are 11 songs that grab you and reward the careful listener.
In a smooth, effortless way, Dawson manages to capture the essence of pleasant roots rock time and again. His wistful “Surrounded By the Sound” (co-written with Thobe) opens the CD in defense of stubbornly being left alone to drown in the sound of loud music. This is a man eager to hide in a “coward’s parade” with his own half-baked theories: “You say you have a penny for my thoughts / I’d pay 100 dollars to just keep my mouth shut”.
These are not your run-of-the-mill love songs. In “Trying to Live Up” we get the tale of a lovable lighthearted drunk raised on trouble and blame being pulled from a car wreck in the rain. It’s more than a catchy melody—it’s a poignant story captured well in simple informative phrases.
The title track discusses the theme of forgiveness, harmful words and thoughts and curses all forgiven now, shadows from a distant past. Let me mention how well the band plays together—the tendency is to overlook the music because it serves the vocals so well.
The lovely voice of Diane Christiansen and some dreamy pedal steel guitar make “The Lotus Hour” an ethereal delight. This Chistiansen/Balletto collaboration talks about a special time when troubles evaporate: “We are refugees from all the plans we made / and all catastrophes / this is the lotus hour / we are refugees slowly floating home / weightless and free”.
Dawson’s strong voice follows in “Overwhelming” in a song about overwhelming chance and overwhelming grace and coming into one’s own that forges a disarmingly gentle poetry. Check out this description of a visitation: “So Jesus came without warning / right over your bed and hovered like a flower / in the coldest hour of the morning / wiping your lips clean / dusting off your good dreams”.
“Wish I Were Here” is a beautiful ballad of simple wishes/commands that would make things better. Alas, in the end Christiansen’s unadorned voice knows that reality is elsewhere: “Wish I were here to see things moving into place / wish I were here / the light reflecting off your face / wish I were here”.
In “There’s a Magic” we get a bona fide two-stepper complete (a la George Jones/Tammy Wynette) with Al Perkins’ pedal steel accompaniment and a real taste of the wonderful warmth and chemistry within these husband/wife harmonies (making us believe in the magic entirely).
The emotional honesty I mentioned earlier really hits home in “Time for Me to Leave.” This amazing Dawson song is the story of a woman finally discovering the courage to leave a bad situation: “Wipe that grin off your face / there’s something I gotta say and it’s taken everything I got to come here and say it / you can punch me in the mouth / you can curse my name out loud / but you won’t ever get me to regret it / I’ve been keeping my mouth shut / I’ve been folding my hands up/ I have stood by you like no one can believe / but I think the time has come for me to leave”.
“Disappear” is sort of a flipside companion to “Time for Me to Leave.” In this song, the urging (as I hear it) is to flee a relationship that has led to a loss of dignity and strength: “If you had a brain in your head this is what you’d do / you would drop everything and you’d run just as far as your legs would carry you / there really is nothing for you here / you’d be wise if you would just disappear”.
Perhaps the most interesting song here is the Christiansen composition “1000 Men Like Cigarettes”, wherein a droll loneliness compares the habit of promiscuity to smoking: “1000 men like cigarettes / put out side to side / I only meant to quit it long enough to catch my stride”.
The CD closes with the slow jazzy soul of “Meant to Be”, a pensive recounting of the past and luck and friendship and how the years rush by, sung by Dawson quietly in a way that captures emotions perfectly. It’s a truly beautiful song.
Not content to end things quietly, there’s a bonus song attached to the last track—so keep your CD spinning. This song, likely called “Almost Made It” is an upbeat track that will have you dancing in the aisles.
This full band effort all about leaving resentments behind and moving on is well written, well produced and well performed. Dolly Varden offers grace through songs in a way that’s not found in most music today. The lyrics present spare poetry with enough open space for any listener to find places to jump in and identify. Moments are captured with emotional honesty in difficult situations, perfected through vocal nuance.
All of this and some fine music makes Forgiven Now a rare and genuine treat that should hold up well in years to come. Discover the thoughtful insights and melodic beauty that make up the music of Dolly Varden—and be sure to spread the word to others.
// Notes from the Road
"Philip Glass, the artistic director of the Tibet House benefits, celebrated his 80th birthday at this year's annual benefit with performances from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brittany Howard, Sufjan Stevens and more.READ the article