The Dreadful Yawns are a band that defies logical categorization. They hail from a decent rock city—Cleveland, Ohio—but it’s an unlikely locale for the band’s sound to flourish. After all, one would expect a band seriously indebted to the Byrds and modern-day Americana practitioners like Beachwood Sparks to hail from California, not the city that gave us, say, Rocket From The Tombs. Too, the label they call home, Bomp!, is a power pop haven; the Dreadful Yawns sound like they belong on Yep Roc. And let’s not even going into trying to figure out what that band name means. Maybe these logical disconnects help explain why there’s something off-kilter about the Dreadful Yawn’s eponymous sophomore album.
On the plus side, any band that sounds like Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band can’t be all bad, and sure enough, there’s a handful of jaunty moments on Dreadful Yawns. I had to doublecheck the liner notes to see if “Darkness Is Gone” was an old Parsons track. It’s not, but with its sweet harmonizing and lines like “Darkness is gone/ We’ll soon get along/ With patience and love”, it certainly could have been.
I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the band’s 2003 debut, Early, but from what I understand, the tunes on that album moved at a glacial pace (the ever-reliable allmusic.com, called it a “narcotized crawl”). Here, a few tunes have some giddyap, namely “Get Yourself Back Home”, “Better Things to Do”, “Drinking Song” and the charming closer, a not-all-who-wander-are-lost anthem called “No Destination”. Especially when compared to the too-precious songs that pepper Dreadful Yawns (see below), these songs really pop, and one wishes there were more of them. A special shout-out goes to steel guitar player Al Moss for his sweeping work, fueling the abovementioned catchy tunes.
For most of the album, though, the band—singer/guitarist Ben Gmetro, singer/guitarist Dave Molnar, drummer Charlie Drusedow and bassist Mike Allan—spends its time being very serious while doing their best to approximate Parsons’ concept of “Astral Americana”. It’s a move that doesn’t always work. “Part of Your Past” is a too-brooding, too-slow waltz, and “Lullaby” aims to be a disturbing murder ballad, but it comes off as laborious. I realize the narrator is a cold-blooded killer, but somehow the band (everybody sings, so I’m not sure who is who) drains all life from menacing lyrics like “I’ll have to kill the one you love/ I’ll have to kill you both/ I’ll have to kill myself”. Meanwhile, the piano-led opener “You Sold the Farm” is too-precious (always a thin line to walk) and the harmonica parts on “It’s a Charmed Life” make that song unbelievably bleak and plaintive. Remind me never to spend a winter in Cleveland.
The most polarizing song on the album, though, is the 18-minute space folk jam, “The People and the Sky”. After a brief intro, the band spirals off into outer space, traversing territory not seen since the heyday of the Grateful Dead, finally returning after a quarter-hour, and finishes strong with a coda that sounds more jangly, alive and vital than the rest of the album put together. By turns dark (“Waste the time of your life and watch it all pass you by”) and hopeful (“Mama gives you your freedom/ Take it all to the wild blue yonder”), it’s probably the purest representation of what the Dreadful Yawns are trying to accomplish, but that 18-minute runtime is still too much of a stumbling block.
For my money, the album’s best moment is “Back in the Ground”. It seems to be about some deceased folks who visit Earth, see that their legacies remain via friends and family, and thus comforted, head “back into the ground”. Let’s just say that my apartment got a little dusty when I heard this song. The Dreadful Yawns have old souls and when they want to strike an emotional chord, they certainly are capable of doing so. Still, too much of the album is spent metaphorically kicking at the dirt.