One thing’s for sure: Al James’ neighbors will probably never call in a noise complaint.
The Dolorean frontman usually sings in a distant whisper—at the very most, a conversational croon—and his band, while certainly capable of bringing the noise, is the model of restraint. And that’s with Grails/Holy Sons guitarist Emil Amos—a musician right at home in a psychedelic maelstrom—in the mix. Amos gets plenty of chances to cut loose on You Can’t Win, but without fail, his playing is tasteful, even refined (definitely check out his standout work on “Beachcomber Blues”). Likewise, the rest of Dolorean play in a relaxed lockstep befitting James’ tales of emotional drift.
It’s not that James creates some kind of Van-Morrison-in-his-prime trance over his bandmates, but you do get the sense that others naturally get swept along by his quiet vision. Even on a record like You Can’t Win, which was reportedly recorded after only a few live warmups, and with no instructions to the bandmembers on how they should fill the spaces. Under such circumstances, it would be amazing for most albums to be even remotely coherent. You Can’t Win, though, feels completely organic, as if these guys read each others’ thoughts as they played.
So there is a bit of a spell at work on You Can’t Win. Maybe it’s James’ hushed delivery, maybe it’s the warm organ and guitar tones that fold over his lyrics, maybe it’s the fact that James wallows in mantra-like repetition on songs like the title track (in which he merely recites the title phrase over and over). In the hands of many bands, the piano intro of “We Winter Wrens” would flare into an anthem-ready crescendo. In Dolorean’s hands, it eases into a gentle lope with delicate banjo accents, not to mention a middle section that sounds straight out of Wilco. “In Love With the Doubt” features shimmery guitar flourishes that wouldn’t be out of place on either a Chris Isaak or a My Morning Jacket song. When You Can’t Win reaches its peak, as it does on two or three songs, it feels like the kind of music you’d want playing if you could lay a blanket down on a summer night and watch the stars die out one by one.
In his notes for the album, James writes that much of You Can’t Win began in a very dark place, but that by the time the recording was through, the title’s philosophy became a rallying cry. That may be so, but there’s no denying that You Can’t Win is a sombre record.
“Buffalo Gal” uses the traditional song as a jumping off point, taking the original’s invitation of “Buffalo Gal, won’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon”, and reversing it on a bed of cold piano notes: “Buffalo gal, don’t you go out tonight / I’ll do my best to keep you inside / Away from the rest / Of those looks that you get / From the boys who are passing you by”. “You Don’t Want to Know” sounds like it dwells at the bottom of an emotional, and literal, well. “What One Bottle Can Do” confesses, “I drink one bottle of wine each night / To help me get over you / I’ve grown quite fond of what / One bottle can do / Puts me to sleep / Without a dream”.
You Can’t Win meanders in spots, but it comes across as the most fully realized Dolorean disc yet. James’ increased use of harmonies and full-band arrangements—as opposed to what felt like late-night recordings of just him and his acoustic guitar—really allows some of his ideas to flower. You Can’t Win finds James exorcising some demons, and should continue the good word-of-mouth that’s already working in Dolorean’s favor.