[5 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Going back to the first time they made their mark among the post-Britpop wave of UK rock bands in the late ‘90s, Doves have always been at their very best when taking chances. When 2000’s gorgeous debut Lost Souls didn’t see the Manchester trio cleverly imbuing their downbeat compositions with ambient shoegaze drones and subtle dance influences, a song like the iridescent “Catch the Sun” would serve up four immaculate minutes of upbeat pop.
The Last Broadcast (2002) was even bolder: “There Goes the Fear” was an ingenious blend of melancholy and euphoria in the great tradition of New Order, “Pounding” sounded like the kind of rousing stadium rocker that neither U2 or Oasis could no longer pull off, and “Caught By the River” was a stately slice of soul underscored by the band’s trademark squalls of effects. And in its own way, the more lucid follow-up Some Cities was a bit of a risky move, bassist/singer Jimi Goodwin, guitarist/singer Jez Williams, and drummer Andy Williams letting the simple hooks of such tracks as “Walk in Fire”, “Sky Starts Falling”, and the Motown-infused “Black and White Town” carry the record instead of focusing on the atmospheric touches they had become known for.
That said, with Some Cities it was apparent that Doves clearly intended to take a more stripped-down approach to their music than on the first two albums, and if it wasn’t for the tremendous hooks that dominated the 2005 album, its rather safe arrangements and production would have been a severe distraction instead of sounding merely tolerable. The fact is, playing it safe doesn’t suit these guys one bit, and if you need further proof, their fourth album hammers the fact home, almost distressingly so.
While the consistent Some Cities cruised along comfortably, Kingdom of Rust is a bumpier ride, as we hear Doves playing to their strengths one minute, and giving in to their schmaltzy instincts the next. However, for a good half hour we’re hearing what sounds like a rejuvenated band, the three musicians up to their old eclectic mischief, sounding as ambitious as ever. “Jetstream” is inspired, the band’s dance element returning with a vengeance, thrumming synths, pounding kick drum, and flange-enhanced hi-hat beats backing Jez’s coy, detached vocals, and the furious “The Outsiders” rocks harder than the threesome ever has before, the song’s churning, swaggering hard rock at times evoking Swervedriver’s “Last Train to Satansville”. With its wistful mellotron loops, ambient touches, and the simple phrasing by smooth-voiced Goodwin, “Winter Hill” captures a pastoral feeling far better than the last album, while the shifts from rich layers of trilling melodies to the abrupt, tense bassline of the chorus on “The Greatest Denier” is an inspired touch.
The deeper we get into the album, though, things start to derail slightly. For the first time in their career, both “Spellbound” and “Lifelines” have the band sounding repetitive, both songs inferior attempts at capturing the same feeling as “Caught By the River”, as Goodwin’s vocals, placed very prominently in the mix this time around, perilously close to sounding overbearing. The dub/funk experiment of “Compulsion”, meanwhile, fails outright, its similarity to Blondie’s “Rapture” far too close for comfort, its lack of subtlety something we don’t expect from this normally tasteful band.
On the other hand, the Spaghetti Western feel of the title track (shades of Calexico and the Sadies) doesn’t feel contrived at all, Andy’s brushed shuffle meshing beautifully with the gently uplifting chorus, Goodwin’s lyrics about moors and cooling towers creating a bleak landscape in the mind’s eye. If there’s a track that we wish would have set an example for the rest of the album to follow, though, it’s the lovely “10:03”, a perfect example of Doves’ audacity yielding a bracing track. Arranged by Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, its transition from the dreamy first half to the rousing climax, in which Andy Williams seems to let loose some potent, Chems-style big beats, is the record’s most revelatory moment.
For all its strengths, though, Kingdom of Rust also leaves us with the uneasy feeling that Doves are starting to feel more comfortable with merely staying the course instead of exploring bolder ideas. We can only hope that their fifth full-length will follow the example of this album’s superb first half instead of its somewhat tepid second.