The rootsy SoCal group stays the course on album number four, begging the question of whether honing a narrowly-defined sound amounts to progress.
All Your Favorite Bands presents an occasion to engage in a time-worn theoretical debate. To wit, is it inherently wrong for an act to do one thing and do it well? Is a band that constantly push against the boundaries more honorable than one that continually sharpens the boundaries' edges?
Not necessarily. But the worthiness of a singular, more conservative pursuit may rest upon what exactly the aim of that pursuit is. On that point is where this, the fourth album from the SoCal quartet, gets into some trouble. Because All Your Favorite Bands shows that Dawes have if nothing else become very good at sounding very much like Jackson Browne.
Since their more rustic, daresay at times edgy masterpiece of a debut, North Hills (2009), the band have with each successive album polished up their sound while honing the smooth arrangements and unassuming earnestness that made Browne a singer-songwriter touchstone.
All Your Favorite Bands is warmer than its predecessor, the strangely sterile Stories Don't End (2013). Veteran producer David Rawlings (Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show) lends a clean, easygoing directness to the sound, and the result is something closer to Dawes' often riveting live show. Yet the album still smacks of diminishing returns and an over-familiarity that Browne himself has never been completely able, or willing, to shake.
Taylor Goldsmith's songs double down on pinpointing slice-of-life vignettes that reveal the simple, meaningful lives of ordinary people, including himself. He is perfectly capable of making an insightful observation and turning a nifty phrase, such as "She was as new and as ancient / As the solar-paneled hills" to describe the star-struck young woman in "Somewhere Along the Way". Too often, though, he reaches, the results sounding as if they came from an over-simplified Americana dictionary.
The worst example is All Your Favorite Bands' title track. Over a nostalgic piano line, Goldsmith reminisces about life on the road. But rhyming "late night drives" with "hot French fries" is hardly soul-warming wordplay. "I hope your brother's El Camino runs forever", he wishes an ex-lover, in a line that is too quaint by half, much more. In terms of mood and feel, Goldsmith aims for Dazed and Confused but ends up far more That '70s Show. The signifiers are there; the meaning is not. On the opening "Things Happen", the album's most biting rock moment, the moral is, "Things happen / That's all they ever do". Actually, do things really do anything?
At least Goldsmith sings it all in his agreeably friendly, straightforward tenor, which sounds slightly more grizzled than before and at times takes on a clipped, Dylanesque phrasing, possibly a byproduct of his participation in the recent New Basement Tapes project.
Musically, the band run through these mostly slow to midtempo songs in their familiarly tasteful, SoCal alt-country way. Goldsmith is a guitarist worth listening too, mixing the bright tonality of Lindsey Buckingham and the flinty probing of Neil Young in equal measure. The Hammond organ swells add the right measure of backporch comfort. There are plenty of subtle hooks, but Dawes seem to be writing the same song in different ways. "Somewhere Along the Way", for example, follows a verse-prechorus-chorus pattern that can be traced through all four of the band's albums, beginning with "When My Time Comes" from the debut. At times one can almost hear drummer Griffin Goldsmith becoming restless.
"I Can't Think About It Now" does offer a different, if not new, wrinkle in the Dawes formula. Taylor Goldsmith's biting guitar line mirrors the frustration in his lyrics, as female backing vocals provided by Rawlings' partner, Gillian Welch. It's the one track on All Your Favorite Bands that sounds like a genuine homage to rather than imitation of Browne and the rest of Dawes' formative influences.
No, there's nothing wrong with doing one thing and doing it well. All Your Favorite Bands, however, suggests that Dawes may just need to recalibrate exactly what that "thing" is.