It’s unfair to compare Manchester’s Doves to Coldplay, but one has to wonder why over the last three years, Coldplay have managed to become one of the world’s biggest rock acts, and not Doves. Here’s a trio who, heavily influenced by the halcyon days of “Madchester” and The Hacienda, created a sumptuous blend of organic dance music, moody, ambient touches of dreampop, and some flawlessly crafted guitar rock, the sheer expertise of the band’s debut album Lost Souls allowing the band to hit the ground running, easily one of this decade’s most confident and accomplished debut releases. By the time 2002’s The Last Broadcast came around, the band were legitimate stars in their homeland, the album topping the charts, and by the end of the year, amassing an impressive collection of first-rate (not to mention arena-friendly) singles, including “Catch the Sun” and “The Cedar Room” (from Lost Souls), and the superb trio of The Last Broadcast‘s “There Goes the Fear”, “Pounding”, and “Caught By the River”. But while their compatriots in Coldplay hit the big time everywhere else, Doves were left to toil in relative obscurity outside the UK.
Now three albums in, Doves appear resigned to the fact that mainstream success in the United States might be out of their reach, and on their new album, Some Cities, instead of sounding desperate to impress everyone in fear of blowing it on their “crucial” third release, they remain comfortably settled in their own groove, willing to move at their own pace. Doves’ evolution continues to be a very gradual one, each subsequent album containing subtle shifts in style, but never too far away from their distinctive sound. It’s the kind of comfort level that will appease fans of the band, but unfortunately the band’s understatedness might not attract many new North American audiences, who are always hungry for that one big breakout single.
While Lost Souls basked in the warm, fuzzy glow of gentle shoegazer/dreampop tones, and The Last Broadcast was more focused and clear-headed, ranging from glorious dance-inspired pop to sweeping, grandiose mini-epics, Some Cities has the band inching toward a more back-to-basics rock sound. To some, that may sound like the worst thing they could dare to do, but true to their form, the band’s sound is never compromised. It’s simply more direct, something you hear instantly on the title track, a simple bass and snare beat by drummer Andy Williams, Jez Williams’ trademark chiming guitar chords, and bassist/vocalist Jimi Goodwin’s unmistakably rich, resonant voice. It’s the most stripped-down and relaxed Doves have sounded on an album yet, as they jam away loosely.
Those looking for a repeat of “There Goes the Fear” will be slightly disappointed, as Some Cities lacks a real knockout of a single (let alone three, like The Last Broadcast had), but overall, it has a consistency that the ambitious last album lacked. The soul-tinged “Black and White Town” is a quality single, though; Williams pounds out a simple, propulsive 2/4 beat, while simple electric piano stabs enter, Jez’s waves of guitar effects swirling about, the band doing that slow build these guys know how to do so well, crescendoing with a sparkling chorus, as Goodwin vividly depicts the drabness of life in the suburbs (“In satellite towns/There’s no color and no sound”). The jubilant “Snowden” marks a refreshing return to the drones of Lost Souls, but again, in a more direct way, as Jez’s sirenlike guitar hook (which sounds as if underscored by a theremin) packs a wallop during the vocals-free chorus. Goodwin’s blend of wordplay (“snowed in”) and longing for the summer (“If this could be our last summer/ Then why should we care?”) actually bears a strong similarity to Husker Du’s classic “Celebrated Summer”, which explores a similar theme. “Walk in Fire” lures us in with its ballad-like opening, but the slightest hint of a dance beat kicks in (it’s great to see that influence is still there), and Goodwin gently takes us over the edge in the chorus, before gradually gaining momentum in its last two minutes. It’s enough to make you realize how this kind of subtlety has been missing from U2’s music for the last 14 years.
Jez Williams sings lead on the album’s two most understated tracks; “The Storm” is awash in languid waves of strings and mellotron, highlighted by a forlorn harp solo, while the morose, piano-driven “Shadows of Salford” will remind many of “M62 Song”, meaning they’ll either tolerate it or hate it. The fact is, Doves are at their best when Goodwin is singing, exemplified by the atmospheric “One of These Days” and the downright jubilant “Sky Starts Falling”, yet another one of those stadium rockers they do so well, which highlight the album’s second half.
Some Cities is not as strong as its two predecessors, but it does continue the band’s run of consistently pleasing albums, cementing their status as one of the most reliable rock bands in the UK today. It might not fly quite as close to the sun as the last couple of albums have done, but that’s not to imply that Some Cities does not soar.