While Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers have stomped and strummed their way to the forefront of the latest folk revival, Dawes have forged a quieter path. And as the California band shows in its third album “Stories Don’t End,” while Dawes’ approach might not be as attention-grabbing as some of its peers, it is nonetheless a band deserving of your consideration not in spite of, because of its laidback agenda.
Dawes writes polished roots rock, steeped in the Laurel Canyon tradition of Jackson Browne and his contemporaries, and an easy, open-road flow infuses the entirety of the record. The proceedings open with “Just Beneath The Surface,” which, like most of the album, is a practice in restraint. The band rarely rises above medium tempo or volume, a motif that will either allow your mind to wander or make you listen that much more intently. “From A Window Seat” follows, riding a gentle funk reminiscent of 1980s Grateful Dead, while lead vocalist Tyler Goldsmith dispenses some appropriate hippie logic like “When you don’t know where you are going/ Any road will get you there.”
“Just My Luck” is another quiet tune that reels you in, a post-breakup ballad premised on running into an ex at a party, with the storyteller singing to convince himself as much as anyone else that everything’s OK. “Someone Will” features some nice pedal steel work, while “Most People” springs from an uncharacteristically rock riff before sliding into comfortable, mid-tempo Dawes territory.
“Something In Common” is a heartfelt, minor-key tearjerker, a modern take on the hushed Richard Manuel aesthetic, while “Hey Lover” is an upbeat change of pace, both musically and thematically.
Eight songs into the 12-song collection, we are met by “Bear Witness,” which might describe Dawes better than any review can, with gently rolling acoustic and electric guitar and simmering organ providing the perfect backdrop for Goldsmith’s straightforward sentiments and his bandmates’ Fleet Foxes-esque harmonies preceding the choruses. “It’s the love that I’ll bear witness too/ And it’s the love that I’ll take with me when I go,” Goldsmith sings, baring his soul with no hint of guile or artifice; it’s a directness that serves the band well throughout the record and helps promote a sense of continuity to the album.
The title track is another exercise in brilliant simplicity, a lilting number with lines like “Cause if you’re telling a story, at some point you stop/ But stories don’t end” that might feel heavy-handed in the hands of another group. Goldsmith’s crystal-clear delivery is the right vessel for such a no-frills sentiment, and he and the band provide the perfect swirl of accompaniment.
“From The Right Angle” follows, a California road rocker, and it’s expertly placed after the darker “Stories Don’t End.” The attention to sequencing is another sign that Dawes is a band trafficking in the album world despite their youthfulness and the overall decline of that format – in sales, at least.
One of the album’s strongest points comes at its conclusion, with “Just Beneath The Surface (Reprise),” bookending the opening track of same title. The lyrics are similar, but sung nearly a cappella to start, empowering them with a different emotional impact. Singing about the moment “right before she left,” Goldsmith illuminates the loose conceptual nature of the record, which touches on a failed relationship and moving forward in its wake. The song fades out with the hushed, dynamic beauty befitting the album it closes.
To say that Dawes is breaking new ground here would be an exaggeration, as would be declaring that the band is simply rehashing past traditions. Instead, the quartet shows that lovelorn and world-weary songs don’t go out of style thanks to their universal appeal, and when the material is strong and heartfelt, at the risk of using a cliché, sometimes less is indeed more.
Dawes will open for Bob Dylan at Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, Pa., on April 18.
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