The only trend more popular right now than growing a beard and making music reminiscent of early CSNY is making cinema or television shows with overtly sexual vampires and detailing their interspecies relationships with humans. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the melodramatic and over-the-top vampire story arc is absent from the rootsy rockers Dawes’ debut album, North Hills.
Stylistically, the band’s music falls somewhere between the California dreaming sound of She & Him and the bearded folk pop of Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, and the recently revived Black Crowes. Lovely harmonies, subtle key changes, and lush arrangements of acoustic guitars, pedal steels, and light drums keep the album sounding like the status quo of StereoGum and Pitchfork. And while that may give the band a certain type of hype — the kind that allowed Fleet Foxes last release to skyrocket to the top of several best-of lists — it also gives the band a serious question to answer: What do you have to offer that the other bearded guys don’t?
There’s a pleasant Gram Parsons vibe throughout the album, but that’s a sound Connor Oberst mastered on his eponymous album with more scope. The subtle gospel tinges and sophisticated harmonies of “That Western Skyline” and “Give Me Time” may be splendid, but Monsters of Folk already beat the band to the punch, and the supergroup had a significantly stronger swing. Ryan Adams has already written “When You Call My Name” at least three times, and managed to make his versions a bit interesting by throwing in a few surprising couplets, a talent Dawes lacks.
The lovely, but ultimately of-the-moment production may draw attention to the band, but the biggest problem remains the songwriting. Simple, cliché images are a stock in trade of the group and titles like “Give Me Time” and “If You Let Me Be Your Anchor” practically give themselves away. Images of the city, older men, and entwined hands dot most of the album, and when the band tries to incorporate some more verbose language, the results come off as saccharine or heavy-handed, like on “Love Is All I Am” and God Rest My Soul”. It’s as if the members of the band picked up “Writing Folks Songs 101” and applied every chapter to a song. It would also behoove the band to start editing their material, as five songs clock in over five minutes, and the closing “Peace In the Valley” almost makes the seven-minute mark.
What Dawes may lack in unique sonic textures or superb musicianship, frontman Taylor Goldsmith makes up for with his capable pipes. He has the mountain wail down, and even if he lacks the more seasoned nuance of someone like John Cowan, he does his best to bring a certain wide-eyed spirit to the songs. And it’s the youthful songs that Goldsmith excels at. He sounds out of place trying to tell a time narrative like “God Rest My Soul” but cuts into “When My Time Comes” with gusto and energy, and leads the harmony section with real command on “That Western Skyline” in a way that favorably recalls Neil Young.
It would be easy to look at North Hills as a last-ditch effort to hop on a bandwagon, and at times, the band give plenty of proof for that read. However, the band do have talent, if it its talent is sometimes being too obvious in its attempt to fit into a certain mold. If the band can find a way to channel their lovely harmonies and roots heavy sound into a way that gives them more character, they could shoot for a type of stylistic renaissance the Avett Brothers achieved earlier this year. Or perhaps the band could plug in and find a way to match their vocal layering with something more kinetic; either way, expect North Hills to end up on at least three best-of ’09 lists. But you can’t really blame the band, just like you can’t blame the CW for pushing “The Vampire Diaries” onto viewers. Well, okay, maybe you can get a little furious over the latter.