Album Review: Stories Don’t End, Dawes

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I wanted to hate Dawes.  Badly.  Before I heard a note from leadman Taylor Goldsmith’s guitar marinated in Neil Young fuzz, I only knew that they were the darlings of the rock and roll old guard.  They’ve received nods from Jackson Browne and Heartbreaker organist Bentmont Tench who both play on Nothing is Wrong.  Chris Robinson loves to jam with these guys.  And Bob Dylan just took them on tour.  Yup, even the cantankerous Robert Zimmerman likes these guys.  Rolling Stone magazine drools over their vintage sound, heralding them as the post-millennial antidote to Justin Beiber and T-Swift.  God, I wanted to hate these four guys, if for no other reason that everyone else seemed to love them.

Then I saw them live at last summer’s Gentleman of the Road tour stop in my Portland, hosted by folk revivalists, Mumford and Sons, and I got it.  I gave about a hundred listens to their 2011 effort, Nothing is Wrong.  I became a believer.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I received a text from a friend: Do yourself a favorAfter work get a cold beverage and listen to the new Dawes record.  I gladly obliged.

The albums opens with the pulsing rhythm section of Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith (drums) and Wylie Gelber (bass), laying the foundation for the layered harmonies of “Just Beneath the Surface.”  Taylor Goldsmith poses a question at the song’s opening: “Have you ever thought your little girl glamour shots / And the events of that whole day spent at the mall / Is a part of you you didn’t know you were clinging to?”  These lines, like a lot of what T. Goldsmith crafts, are surprising and accessible.  This question about mall glamour shots is actually a question about self and identity, as is much of the lyric-scape of Stories Don’t End.  T. Goldsmith plays with the idea that we have past selves that haunt and pull at our slippery present self, keeping us from fully connecting with others.

This kind of thinking, though, can lead to mopey nostalgia, and that’s what we get on “Just My Luck.”  I want to urge the narrator of the song to get over himself.  You know, wrap my arm around him and say, “Dude, don’t be so passive.  We make our own luck.”  That’s my only complaint about Dawes lyrically, at times they can get mournful.  In a bad way.  Sonically, however, this song highlights a strength of Dawes as a band: they can slow down without being boring.  Much of this has to do with T. Goldsmith’s subtle, ’60’s tone guitar work at the end of the track.  It’s tasteful.  He plays only the notes that need to be played.

I’m going to break in here and put my finger on what Dawes can teach all bands.  Everywhere.  Ever.  They aren’t afraid to leave space in their songs.  It’s refreshing to see a band of this stature that doesn’t overplay their instruments.  No, refreshing is an understatement.  It’s fucking revolutionary.  This is no easy feat for musicians.  Egos abound in all bands.  There is such a respect for songs on Stories Don’t End.  All members are pulling so clearly in the same direction.  Bands, take notice.

Now back to the songs.  The winner on this album is “Someone Will.”  It opens with a Paul Simon groove and acoustic guitar picking pattern.  And like most Dawes songs, it hooks the listener with a concrete image right off: “Grab your cigarettes and follow me out of the living room / And I’ll get drunk enough to tell you how I feel.”  It’s those little bits of imagery like “cigarettes” that allows us to get inside the lyrics immediately.  T. Goldsmith gets philosophical, but he grounds us in the concrete.  There’s an ancient Chinese adage that writing must be “precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.”  These songs take that advice, and, except for the occasional detour into passive nostalgia, they are stronger because of it.

Overall, the biggest lesson a songwriter can learn from Stories Don’t End is how to arrange a song.  The name of the game here is dynamics.  They let the songs swell and settle organically.  Take “Something In Common.”  It’s a bit of a moper, but at 3:20, the badass kicks in and salvages the entire tune.  Give the album a listen just for dynamics.

Like most things I avoid because they’re popular, when I finally get around to experiencing it, I understand the acclaim.  I missed the initial boat on Dawes, but I boarded eventually.

So, do yourself a favor.  After work get a cold beverage and listen to the new Dawes record.  You’ll be glad you obliged.

(Click to listen through Spotify.)

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