With its 2001 debut album, Rewriting the Wrongs, Seattle band Dear John Letters established itself as a force to watch in indie pop circles. Combining a classic pop sound certainly influenced by Paul McCartney, folk stylings, and an indie rock sensibility, Dear John Letters created a broad canopy of sounds that spanned quiet acoustic ballads to grandiose rock compositions.
Unbroken, the band’s sophomore release, has all the same ingredients: frontman Robb Benson’s sure guiding voice, impressive guitar virtuosity from engineer/producer-cum-axeman Johnny Sangster, and the same heady lyrics courtesy of Benson and the band’s resident non-playing poet, Michele Price. But there are a few changes this time around. The most immediately noticeable is the cleaned-up and confident production, which removes some of the rough edges of the more lo-fi Rewriting the Wrongs. However, instead of sounding too slick and polished, Unbroken just sounds clean and rich, elevating crunch above mud.
Additionally, there’s an increased sense that Dear John Letters is shooting for a contemporary audience rather than the hearts of pop revivalists. There are enough big rock flourishes and clipped, angular post-punk guitar tones that Unbroken has as much chance appealing to Guided by Voices or Pavement fans as it does appealing to purists looking for a reincarnation of Wings. Not that Rewriting the Wrongs would have been immediately pegged as Pop Underground or any corresponding retro genre label, but this time out the band seems to have truly meshed Seattle rock and classic pop into an beautiful hydra of musicality.
If, however, you happen to be one of the many fans who were charmed by the oft-mentioned ability Benson seemed to have for channeling McCartney (as was I), you won’t be disappointed. The past hasn’t been buried, and Dear John Letters hasn’t given up its base strengths, it’s just that everything seems to have been updated a bit. One of the key features of the band has always band has always been its effortless shifts from rock send-ups to lilting pop to quiet moments of reflection, and that hasn’t changed in the least. This disc has its moments of variety and nods to the gods in equal doses. “Picture Show” is a full-on psych-rock track built on an oscillating lead guitar and effects-laden vocals. “Disappointed” returns to the sweet melodies of Beatle-esque pop, while “Fwd & Rwd” even drops a quick nod to Donovan riffs. And, of course, there’s a straight-up folk tune, the title track “Unbroken”, which has a decidedly Arlo Guthrie feel.
But Benson seems to have embraced a bit more of the rock whine and clipped guitars that thrive on the indie scene. Interestingly, instead of usurping the band’s sound, it really just works to make Dear John Letters fit into the present moment. “Out of the Park”, “Sorry to Sorry”, and “Kings & Queens” are definitely not mistakable as Wings clones, but they’re all remarkable songs, each of which could vie for CMJ chart positions. Possibly my favorite track on the disc even takes a 90-degree turn and touches on honky-tonk territory. “My Volcano” is a blues-rock explosion (without the Jon Spencer) with a rollicking piano line that drives the song at full-speed into Benson’s slightly twangy chorus of “Let the record play / To the end this time”. While it’s most likely a fun metaphor, I also like to hear it as an acknowledgement that, far more than Rewriting the Wrongs, Dear John Letters has delivered in Unbroken an album that satisfies from start to finish.
If practice does make perfect, Benson might well be on his way to becoming a genius. Following the release of Rewriting the Wrongs, Benson got together with guitarist Johnny Sangster to release a dueling song disc under the moniker Sangster Meets Benson in 2001, and then followed it up with a solo disc titled De Stella Nova in 2002, released almost simultaneously with Unbroken. Obviously a busy man, Benson’s gift with melodies and hooks continues to grow, and Unbroken is the bold and confident album of a musician and his incredible band coming fully into their own.