Hawthorne, California's dios (malos) create a rich set of pop songs, but leave their hijinks and quirks behind due to producer Phil Ek's indie-pop knob twiddling.
There's a certain joy, tempered by a thin veneer of frustration, in watching a band grow up. Much like neighborhood children you watch them make mistakes, grin widely at their triumphs, root for them under your breath, grit your teeth at their foolishness, shudder at their embarrassments. The whole thing is encapsulated in a weird twice-removed from reality semi-unhealthy fixation that really has nothing to do with us. We're just observers hoping for the best. Yet we do it all the time, for sports teams, movie stars, and athletes of all stripes. Such it is with dios (malos) (formerly Dios but forced to change their name because Ronnie James Dio is a short man with a Napoleon complex and good lawyers) and me.
Dios' 2003 self-titled debut record was a warm mix of California sun, the hazy gauze of too many drinks, and the grey blanket of too many bong hits. It fluctuated from introspective to insolent, from songs grounded in pop melody to a trippy folk psychedelia. It was an album jammed full of potential that tended to wander off into an ethereal fog comprised of too many effects and recorded noise, but always found its way back to a rooted pop framework. Dios was a record that constantly pulled rabbits out of its proverbial hat, whether it was an unexpected keyboard passage that recalled a twisted moment of the Alan Parsons Project's "Eye In The Sky", a Neil Young cover, or a soaring vocal harmony that kicks you in the head. Dios announced a band that you wanted to root for in the way that you rooted for the nerdy kids in Meatballs. And while any number of the tracks on Dios hinted towards an esoteric career of exploration launched at odd angles, there were also songs like "Meeting People" that had as much in common with cheesy rock power ballads (despite the band's attempts to cover the songs wonderful conventionality with samples, noise and feedback) as with Brian Wilson's Smile. Dios' encore was to be a mystery. With so many directions hinted at, which way would they go?
dios (malos) is largely a successful effort. For those of you who loved the old Dios for their oddness and all the beauty such oddity can engender, you may be a little disappointed. For the most part dios (malos) plays a straight pop card this time around. While there are still electronic textures throughout the album, quirky blendings of analog and digital both manipulated and strummed, dios (malos) is a record with producer Phil Ek's fingerprints all over it. If you're familiar with Ek's work with Built To Spill, The Shins and Modest Mouse you can probably guess at the direction he's pushed the band. If there was ever an internal battle between pop harmony and oddball variations within dios (malos)'s songs, Ek's presence tips the scales squarely in favor of clear headed pop. The good thing about this is that you can hear how talented the band really is in regards to songwriting. As with most bands growing up on the road and stage, dios (malos)'s confidence in their songwriting has expanded remarkably. "Say Anything" is about as pretty a ballad as you'll hear this year, carefully crafted from a simple guitar measure and a metronomic drumbeat; it's the kind of song that thousands of lovelorn will be putting on mix tapes.
But I keep asking myself if this is the record I wanted from dios (malos). I can't (and won't) deny that it's packed with fine songs that rock ("My Broken Bones", "Love You Grrrl"), weep ("I'm Only Daydreaming"), and soar to new highs in the power ballad sweepstakes ("EPK"). This is quality stuff, so why the reservations? Mostly it's because I feel like dios (malos) has lost a bit of the personality that made Dios such a charming affair. You can't blame a band for making their run at the big time, especially when the band doesn't make a bad record but simply a typical one. I'm still rooting for dios (malos) -- I just think that the record I want to hear from these guys is still a bit further along the road.