Dolorean: Not Exotic

[15 December 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

Yep Roc is one of the best labels around when it comes to finding hidden talent and making it a little less hidden. Although not in the same league as the majors, this label is certainly holding its own with the likes of Caitlin Cary, Thad Cockrell, and now Dolorean. If you look at the press kit, you might get the impression that this band is a shoegazing band from the dirty thirties. But the pairing of Al James and Ben Nugent, along with some other seasoned people, has more of a dirge-like atmosphere. “I really am a happy person,” James says in the press kit. But judging from the opening, Nick Drake-like ‘70s folk found in “Morningwatch”, you feel like there should be some Kleenex nearby or a storm cloud overhead. Beginning with a cello, James takes this tune down a depressingly beautiful path. “And as night’s sins fade away and bee stings lose their swell / So begins my day, so ends my hell”, he sings in a vein that instantly resembles Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album more than The Ghost of Tom Joad. And it simply shines from start to finish! A good omen.

“Traded for Fire” has more of a bar piano swing to it, with the Americana or alt-country-styled sway giving the song a lot of feeling. Not exactly Wilco or Ryan Adams, but a cross of those two and groups like the Iron and Wine, the song has a gorgeous waltz quality to it. Or you just as easily could be on your sixth double, reflecting on what could’ve been. James gives a glimpse into his influences here, with Neil Young and Willie Nelson definitely present. “So I went to see her like a thief in the night / I gave her my death and stole from her life”, is just a sample of the murder ballad Dolorean is aiming at. And here the band nails it without any question or hesitation. Nugent adds vocal harmonies here as well.

“Jenny Place Your Bets” could have come from Being There, with the organs creating a haunting yet roots-like characteristic. Bands like Blue Rodeo (if fronted by Greg Keelor and not Jim Cuddy) also are heard in this outstanding track. Not as overtly depressing or somber as groups like the Handsome Family, Dolorean seems to let the music do most of the talking while the less than cheerful lyrics complement the track to a science. The mandolin of Jeff Saltzman and the brushes used by drummer Jay Clarke are vital to the song’s success. “The Light Behind My Head” is more of a group effort, perhaps the closest they’ll get to recording as if they were around a campfire. Possibly the “pop song” of the album, it’s up-tempo relative to the earlier efforts.

James could be 56 and not the 26 years he’s been on this planet. World-weary and tired, he puts himself out there for “Still Here with Me”, a moody and murky little ditty that weaves from strings to piano to vocals and back. Speaking about sleeping with ghosts, it has similarities to Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane” but only in terms of content, certainly not evoking the same feel. “So You’re a Touring Band Now” doesn’t veer much from the album’s overall gist, yet it doesn’t seem quite as perfect as earlier tunes. Complete with all the small, audible chord changes on the guitar neck, the tune could use a pedal steel off in the distance to open it up somewhat. “Sleeperhold” is a psalm to the less fortunate, but has a certain “filler” aura to it. Maybe that’s because it’s one of the more accessible tunes here for most, à la Ryan Adams.

The album title basically says it all and then some. By the time the band sneak out the back door with “Spoil Your Down”, you get the idea that what you’ve just heard was a gorgeous dream. And that’s not even mentioning the tear-eyed “Hannibal, MO”, a spine-tingling narrative about a lover being swept out to sea, a murder charge, and the family waiting for vengeance. “It’s all too beautiful”, James sings at one point on the album. I couldn’t agree more!

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dolorean-notexotic/