Dawes have made a name for themselves the old fashioned way, the way you thought just did not happen in the music industry any more. After changing their name and approach from the more modern rock-minded Simon Dawes, the Los Angeles quartet released North Hills in 2009. Thereafter, North Hills received well-deserved word-of-mouth popularity, and the band matched it with constant touring, regular releases, and a down-to-earth, unpretentious approach to their music and their fans. If you didn’t know any better, you would think these guys were Midwestern. In any case, they are the kind of band that as a music lover you feel almost obliged to pull for.
Now that Dawes have released their third album in five years, Stories Don’t End, though, you get the impression they are going to be one of those bands like the Violent Femmes or Counting Crows whose subsequent recorded career never quite lives up to their debut. Sure, other albums may have broader appeal, and may be pretty good, too. Dawes’ sophomore album, Nothing Is Wrong (2011) was a solid batch of generally very good songs. It probably sold more than the debut, too. And Stories Don’t End probably will do nothing to diminish the band’s appeal among the faithful. In fact, it might just put them over into the mainstream, so easy do its heartfelt, rootsy, SoCal Americana songs go down. Still, you can’t help feel a tinge of disappointment that the band have once again decided not to go a bit deeper and darker, to delve a bit more into the melancholy that marked North Hills‘ slate of tearjerkers, and the bit of roadhouse energy that informed its more uptempo tracks.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith has lately expressed some consternation that his band have been labeled as “retro” or a throwback to the Laurel Canyon folk-rock sound of the early-to-mid 1970s. Duly noted, but dude, you can’t be all that surprised when most of Nothing is Wrong sounded just like vintage Jackson Browne. In fact, that was a big part of its charm. While plenty of whippersnappers have honed in on the vapid, flashy commercialism of the Eagles, far fewer are paying homage to Browne, whose early work was an inspiration to that entire ’70s scene and remains sorely underappreciated by the “new Americana” crowd.
The knock on Browne, though, was that due to his style and phrasing, a lot of his songs sounded similar to each other. Some folks couldn’t get past that, the way some couldn’t get past Neil Young’s voice. But many others viewed Browne as a storyteller who was merely setting his stories and confessions to music, and music that was melodic and well-played at that.
Dawes run into this issue a bit on Stories Don’t End. For the most part, they are still honed in on Browne, from medium-heat rockers “Most People” and “From the Right Angle” to reflective ballads like “Something in Common” and “Side Effects”. As far as mildly twangy, no-frills American music goes, it’s perfectly fine and quite well-played. Goldsmith’s lyrics have become more verbose, and his phrasing does tend to fall into a familiar pattern that indeed lends much of Stories Don’t End a similar feel, even if it’s one that is pleasing to the ear.
Still, there are tracks that make themselves known more than others. Opener “Just Beneath the Surface” goes from galloping-bassline verse to a yearning chorus that is probably Dawes’ most elegant to date. Goldsmith’s warm, measured voice sounds better than ever on the self-explanatory “Just My Luck”, a piano-led confessional that recalls John Lennon. The band’s close harmonies continue to be a strength, and the album offers another cameo from Goldsmith’s kid brother, drummer Griffin, on lead vocals.
Throughout, the lack of guile is striking and provides Stories Don’t End‘s greatest appeal. More troubling is how “From a Window Seat” comes within inches of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and the acoustic arpeggio on “Someone Will” sounds so familiar because it’s the same one on My Morning Jacket’s “Golden”.
Yes, you have to love Dawes for doing it the old fashioned way, trends and hipster cred be damned. But, sonically at least, it may be time to put a few bumps in the road.