For the beloved Cali combo, the stories are only beginning…
BY TOM SPEED
For their third album, Los Angeles-based roots rockers Dawes stepped out of their comfort zone by enlisting new producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Tom Waits) and relocating to the North Carolina mountains, where they holed up in an old church to record the dozen songs that make up Stories Don’t End.
But the result is not so much a departure from the bucolic settings and rich character-driven songs that earned them recognition and comparisons to their Laurel Canyon folk-rock forbearers. More, it is a continuation that establishes them as a maturing band with a catalog of well-crafted songs that are uniquely their own.
The band —brothers Taylor (guitar, vocals) and Griffin (drums) Goldsmith, keyboardist Tay Strathairn and bassist Wylie Gelber —are old-school only in that they focus on well-crafted, emotion-laden songs rendered simply with skill and soul.
“It’s refreshing,” says the Nashville-based King, who suggested each of them move away from distractions in order to focus on the experience of making a record. “They have a level of talent and musicality that is a timeless quantity. Nobody really wants to hear something that’s just a rehashing of old stuff. It doesn’t feel like its something that’s just of a particular moment, either being really old or a sort of copycat thing. It feels like it is genuine and timeless.”
Much has been made of Dawes being a part of the so-called “Laurel Canyon Revival,” the supposed re-invigoration of hippie aesthetics and pastoral leanings that recall the early 1970s, when the Los Angeles neighborhood was the epicenter of southern California’s folk-rock movement, a nexus of hippiedom that spawned Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne among others.
Much of this modern mythos stems from the infamous jam sessions hosted by Jonathon Wilson, a North Carolina transplant who released a well received and star-studded album in 2011 called Gentle Spirit, but who has found more success as a producer, a luthier and ringmaster of these hootenannies. Dawes’ participation in these jams led to Wilson producing their first two albums.
But while the Goldsmith brothers grew up in Los Angeles, they are not from Laurel Canyon and never lived there. Wilson moved his studio to Echo Park years ago.
So much of the surrounding hoopla is just that. But there are fair comparisons to be made to the sound and style.
Dawes keeps it simple with an analog aesthetic. No gadgetry, just good songs and sparse instrumentation—guitars, drums, piano. And the resultant sound does bring to mind those rustic days gone by. Even the timbre of Taylor’s voice recalls that of Jackson Browne.
“I understand why people would say that about us and that’s totally cool because a lot of people associated with that time and place are a big influence to us,” says Goldsmith. “We understand it.”
But it’s an artist’s nature to resist pigeonholing. “I don’t think any musician likes reducing their sound and style to words,” he adds. “So I think yeah, I get the Laurel Canyon thing. But my impulse is to say yeah but it’s not Laurel Canyon. And I wouldn’t know how to describe it. But I don’t think any artist does. If it was particularly easy to describe, there wouldn’t be much to offer. You hear about guys like Kurt Cobain rejecting ‘grunge’ and Bob Dylan rejecting ‘folk’ and these terms that nobody wants to be simplified to.”
(below: “When My Time Comes” official video)
The Goldsmith brothers grew up if not destined to play music, at least encouraged to. Their father, Lenny Goldsmith, was a member of the Tower of Power and urged his sons on from a young age.
“I took piano and stuff when I was a kid but forgot it,” Taylor says. “Then I started playing guitar when I was like 12 and picked up the piano after that.”
By high school, he was playing in bands and together with his buddy Blake Mills formed the band Simon Dawes, nicking their moniker from each of their middle names. The group put out a record and toured to some acclaim before splitting up. By this time, younger brother Griffin was ready to join his brother and joined a new incarnation of the band, simply named Dawes.
After forming the new band and connecting with Wilson, they released their debut album North Hills in 2009, and in 2011 Nothing Is Wrong, both on ATO records. They included now canonical staples of their repertoire like “Time Spent In Los Angeles,” from Nothing is Wrong, a sweetly melancholic song that manages to morph into a lighter-waving anthem in concert.
Indeed, they were making a reputation as a live act. They caught the attention of Robbie Robertson who enlisted them to be his backing band on a handful of dates. Later they would meet and would perform with Jackson Browne. Last year, they did an extensive tour with Mumford & Sons. This summer, Dawes will open for Bob Dylan on an American tour.
These are and were watershed moments for Dawes.
“It’s a high honor,” says Taylor. “Those are our heroes and never thought we’d meet them much less share a stage with them. We feel so lucky that we’ve gotten the good fortune to be able to play with some of these people. These are the dreams you have when you start a band. To have them all come true, we’re very conscious of it while its all going on. “
“They are a great live band,” says King. “I know that their fans feel like its really important to get the full Dawes experience you have to see them live and that’s true because they do put on a great live show. I hope that the new record isn’t isolated as just a record. I hope that the things that are built into it that showcase them as a live band shine through on the record as well.”
That new record, Stories Don’t End, is mostly characterized by Taylor’s now trademark narrative songwriting style. The songs are stories, their characters full of introspection and earnest pondering. Those familiar with Dawes will know that there’s an unabashed heart-on-the-sleeve approach to their songs.
It’s apparent on the first single, “From A Window Seat,” a chugging examination that starts as mundane observations of an airline passenger but soon turns introspective to examine the hidden lives of us all. Several ballads strike a tender chord, notably “Just My Luck” with its plaintive melody and intricate piano outro, and the solemn ache of “Something in Common.”
The album is bookended by “Just Beneath The Surface”—part one of which is an energetic opener. Part two, the reprise, closes the album with the delicate interplay of guitar and piano that gently lifts you out of a dream.
“Sometimes there are guitar solos in songs and sometimes there are just melodic sections where the guitar and piano are featured,” says King. “And you just don’t get a lot of that these days. It’s refreshing. You’re not being beaten over the head with words or beats or sonic landscapes.”
The title track of Stories Don’t End examines the notion that our lives are ongoing, that the story one is telling only ends when the listener stops listening. For now, the story of Dawes is nowhere near ending.
[Photo Credit: Sam Jones]