June 7, 2011

Review: Dawes :: Nothing Is Wrong

Dawes are rock classicists. They're not interested in reinventing the wheel or breaking new rock & roll boundaries—at least not yet. Right now, this Los Angeles quartet is simply grinding away and honing its chops. And on their sophomore album Nothing Is Wrong, those chops are mighty sharp. The four members of Dawes clearly grew up listening to the likes of Neil Young, the Band, and the Laurel Canyon crowd, as brothers Goldsmith and company play in a bubble of 1970s rock aesthetics with purring organs, room-filling guitar solos, and grand, sweeping, everyman choruses. But this is no nostalgia act nor rock revival. Dawes are very much a contemporary band with their own distinctive sound—they're just one that happens to appreciate the subtleties of recording live to 2" analog tape.

So what's happened since North Hills? Well, for starters, Taylor Goldsmith learned how to play lead guitar. And I'm not talking walking up scales. I mean check out the airy Dickie Betts twang on "My Way Back Home" and the gritty Mike Campbell tangle on "If I Wanted Someone." Perhaps some of that time recording with Robbie Robertson rubbed off, as Taylor can straight play. In fact, the whole Dawes sound has been beefed and roughed up with blasts of electric guitar, piano, Griffin Goldsmith's artfully pounded drums, and a few exceptional guest stars, like Everybody Taste favorite Jonathan Wilson, who lends a hand on percussion and mandolin. If North Hills was a couple of guys harmonizing on your front porch, this Nothing Is Wrong cast is more likely to play an epic set at the Fillmore: sweat covered, eyes glazed over, lighters in the air.

There's perhaps no better example of that transformation than the 6-and-a-half-minute "Fire Away." With Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on organ and Jackson Browne on backup vocals, Taylor leads his expanded lineup through layer after layer of build and anticipation into a cathartic coda of overlapping harmonizing: "When you need someone to walk away from / When you need someone to let you in." That's all capped off around the five-minute mark with a truly mind-numbing and frenetic guitar solo. It's a heroic addition to the Dawes canon—a cross-generational ode to love, friendship, and heartbreak, as enjoyable to a blog-reading twenty-something as it is to his or her sixty-something "I took acid at Woodstock" parental unit.

Nothing Is Wrong simply lacks a false note. From the opening road-weary "Time Spent In Los Angeles" ("These days friends don't seem to know me / Without my suitcase in my hand") to the Harvest-era maid-dropping swagger of "If I Wanted Someone" ("If I wanted someone to clean me up / I'd find myself a maid") and the playful drum-driven dance of "Coming Back To A Man," the songs pour over with sincerity, introspection, and a tight hard-won sound earned from years spent on the road. There's also a few new wrinkles, like Griffin Goldsmith singing lead on "How Far We've Come." Though Griffin lacks the emotional force and tenacity of his older brother, he proves more than capable of carrying the bright and breezy track. Album-closing ballad "A Little Bit of Everything" also shows Taylor can compose a memorable song just as easily sitting down at the piano. While Taylor may never pen a Dawes song more signature and compelling than "When My Time Comes," Nothing Is Wrong absolutely contains the songwriter's finest and most fully-realized collection of work to date. As this quartet grows in popularity, it seems their songs are destined to follow suit: getting bigger and better at every turn.

Dawes - "If I Wanted Someone" (from Nothing Is Wrong)
Middle Brother - "Million Dollar Bill" (Daytrotter)

When My Time Comes - North Hills

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