Dawes

While the city of Los Angeles has been both an inspiration and a home to the four members of Dawes, they found themselves traveling East last fall to record their third album in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with newly enlisted producer Jacquire King. It was a chance to hunker down and work each day for a month away from familiar landmarks and routines. The tracks they laid down at Asheville's Echo Mountain Studio have yielded a 12-song disc of tremendous sonic and narrative clarity, book-ended in classic album fashion by two very different versions of the wistful "Just Beneath The Surface" – a misleading title, really, since the songs stacked in between dig so deep. Stories Don't End is not so much a departure from the quartet's previous efforts as a distillation of them. It spotlights the group's maturing skills as arrangers, performers and interpreters who shape the raw material supplied by chief songwriter and lead vocalist Taylor Goldsmith into an artfully concise and increasingly soulful sound.

Once again, Goldsmith displays a particular gift for tunes that balance tough and tender, hardboiled and heartbroken. As a writer, he prowls his psyche like a forties detective, looking for clues to the mysteries of life and love. "Just My Luck" has the irresistible pull of a vintage country tune, though the arrangement is understated and contemporary. If Goldsmith's vocal delivery weren't plaintive enough, the band ups the emotional ante with a beautiful wordless coda that intertwines Tay Strathairn's piano and Goldsmith's lead guitar. Similarly "Something In Common" is a morning-after shuffle that builds into a bigger and more dramatic track before dropping back to a quiet melancholic finish. Goldsmith takes a few simple words, like "something in common," and uses them like chapter headings to develop a compelling story, full of unexpected twists, from verse to verse. "Someone Will" includes the same kind of word play while boasting a little more swagger. "Hey Lover," a cover of a tongue-in-cheek tune by Dawes' good buddy Blake Mills, is a playful mid-album break with Taylor Goldsmith and his young brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, trading off lead vocals.

Before he started composing for the album, says Taylor, "I went through a Joan Didion tear." It was right after he read the legendary author's Democracy that he found the title, Stories Don't End, in her work. Though Didion is currently a New Yorker, she is most associated with Southern California, its culture of the sixties and seventies, a subject she examined in gimlet-eyed prose. When Goldsmith started penning new songs after several months on the road in support of Dawes' 2011 disc, Nothing Is Wrong, his writing was even more keenly observant. "From a Window Seat" was the first he completed and, he admits, "It's a very singular song. A lot of the songs on the record can be a little more broad, about a period in someone's life or trying to explore a certain feeling. This song is about a specific experience of being on an airplane and that's not a very poetic or lyrical idea." Yet Goldsmith, employing an accumulation of small details, once again finds the bigger picture, about the narrator's past and his (and our) uncertain future, about the history lurking beneath the swimming pool-dotted landscape below him. Just as important is the track itself -- lean, propulsive and guitar-driven – lending urgency to Goldsmith's in-flight musings. Similarly, "Bear Witness," a last-minute addition to the lineup that the band arranged during the Asheville sessions, is an almost cinematically vivid rendering of a man having a conversation with his child from his hospital bed.

Nothing Is Wrong had garnered considerable acclaim, with London's Independent declaring, "It's as close to a perfect Americana album as there's been this year." Up to then, the band had relied on good friend Jonathan Wilson as producer, cutting its 2009 debut disc, North Hills, at Wilson's Laurel Canyon studio and its follow-up with Wilson at a larger room in Echo Park. But Wilson's own career as a solo artist was taking off following the release of his Gentle Spirit disc, and the band began a search for a new collaborator. King boasted an impressive and unusual resume, having produced an eclectic range of artists, including Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones and the Punch Brothers. Says keyboardist Strathairn, "He's really easy to work with. As a producer he doesn't want to be the artist, he simply tries to make the band sound the best that the band can be. And the work speaks for itself."

Recording with King and foregoing the quickly cut, straight-to-analog tape approach of its first two recordings was a way, says Taylor, for Dawes "to push the boundaries of what might be expected of us, or feel like a comfort zone for us, while trying to be the same band we always are. That was important to us. We didn't want to abandon anybody's sense of who we were and, more importantly, our sense of ourselves. We wanted to stay true to this thing that we had while starting to widen the spectrum a little bit."

The reprise of "Just Beneath the Surface" at the end of the disc, however, is a first-take document of the band figuring out the tune together, and it was too good not to keep. As bassist Wylie Gelber recalls, "We knew the vibe we were going for and we were running through it while Jacquire was setting up. But we were completely unaware that he was recording us. We were fooling around and towards the end of it, we stopped for a minute and Jacquire said, Hey man, I think we've got it. We tried to beat that take but we couldn't. You can hear it there, you can feel that it's the first time it's being played, it's a simple song and there's a subtle art to doing it. It ebbs and flows."

"With Jacquire," explains Taylor, "we were able to hold on to an essence of what we had been, but I feel now, more than with our first two records, that this makes a case that we're a band from 2013. There a lot of bands that harken back to a period or style of a different time and that can be really limiting. That was never our intention."

"The album is very honest," concludes Strathairn. "It's us."

- - Michael Hill

Johnathan Rice

"We're all stuck out in the desert and we're gonna die!" Coming through the speakers sounding like some strange love child of The Pixies and Country Joe And the Fish, it's the feel bad hit of the season. What I mean is, it's doomsday pop you can dance to. It is at once old and new, like a coyote slinking past a gay bar. Then, after that, it's the dumb stomp of the title track, which makes you think about a more hi-fi Crazy Horse playing way behind the beat and spreading all over the map. "I know I don't belong singin a worthless freedom song. It's all a waste of time." Is this a first? Is he protesting the protest song? Either way, alert Fox News and Moveon.Org and start slinging mud.

If you heard the first record, you'll be wondering what happened. If you haven't heard it, this is a wonderful place to start. "I think I got younger on this record" says Rice from a plastic lawn chair a few miles east of Hollywood. "The first one is so dramatic!" – referring to dream sequence–styled psychedelic pop record Trouble Is Real. The album, made in Lincoln, Nebraska with the staggeringly talented Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, The Faint, Cursive) was an incredibly bold experiment for a nineteen-year old making his first record. Almost stylistically schizophrenic, the record rocketed from orchestral pop to hammering punk-influenced rock. "While I was writing Further North, the way I feel about everything changed. The way I sing changed. It's so much less labored now. The weight of the world that was never there in the first place was lifted. I just wanted to simplify everything." There are a lot of moments on this record where everything breaks down to just drums and vocals, as if it's some sort of primal reaction to the sonic decadence of Trouble Is Real.

That's one of the few benefits of being a twenty-four year old in the pop desert of the mid-2000's. Born in Virginia and raised between there and his family's Glasgow, Scotland, Johnathan grew up on all the music worth listening to - from Neil Young and the Byrds to the Velvets and Wire to Bobby Charles, Tom Petty and Townes Van Zandt. His songs reflect a generation that heard Rock and Roll after it was born, died, and born again. He toured for nearly three years in the time before and after the release of Trouble is Real. The album reached the ears of many other musicians, leading to tours opening for Wilco, Martha Wainwright, Ben Gibbard, and Jenny Lewis. He also played rock-legend dress-up when he played a bit part as Roy Orbison in the Academy Award winning film Walk The Line and contributed an Orbison cut to the Grammy Award winning soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett.

The album was especially well received in the UK, particularly after REM's Peter Buck caught Rice's acoustic set in a bar in Manchester. That brief encounter prompted Buck to invite the twenty-one year old to open several shows for REM, including their historic concert at London's Hyde Park in front of 90,000 fans. "Opening for any band, large or small is the true test of your own self-belief. The people didn't pay to see you, so you gotta make sure they don't feel like they're getting ripped off. It made me a stronger performer, and I took that strength with me into the studio."

Johnathan entered Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA (Tom Petty, Nirvana) in the eerily warm winter of 2006. Jason Lader (Vietnam, Rilo Kiley) and Farmer Dave Scher (Beachwood Sparks, All Night Radio) completed the three man production team. It's quite obvious even from a cursory first listen that the album was recorded live and not much else was added in post. "I took a pretty big gamble on the sessions. I told Dave and Jason that I didn't want to rehearse the band at all. I wanted them to hear each song for the first time right there on the studio floor and then go on their initial instincts. That can either work totally to one's advantage or totally flop. Luckily, the guys who played on it were so fucking good that it worked out. I had the time of my life recording these songs."

Whereas the first record tried to take on the world and a whole host of musical genres, this new album stays relentlessly focused on the song, the band, and that voice. The sound is warm and the words are at once hot and cold. It's an optimistic apocalypse with something for you and your weird uncle. It's consistently against the grain while staying true to that old Harvest, y'know?

Whatever you think about this record, there is a story here. The lyrics cut as deep as you let them, and even if you don't pay attention to that sort of thing there are enough deep pockets and American guitars to keep you nodding your head in the drive through line. I don't know if you people read these things or not. But I do hope you listen to this record. On some quality speakers. Not those shitty little earphones either.

Willie Watson

Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, is feeling inspired. Inspired by the reverence of the old and the anticipation of the new. After 13 years with OCMS, where he gained fans such as Norah Jones and Gillian Welch while also paving the way for other rootsy bands like Mumford and Sons, Watson left the group to pursue a solo career. Invigorated to get back into the studio, Watson is concentrating on those high lonesome vocals so prominently illustrated on "Wagon Wheel" and "Minglewood Blues."

Hailing from Upstate New York, Watson began playing music in his early teens, eventually honing his skills while busking on the street and joining OCMS. In 2011, Watson partook in the historic "Railroad Revival Tour" with OCMS, Mumford and Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Traveling exclusively by vintage train, the bands played concerts throughout the Southwest, capturing every moment for the Emmett Malloy helmed "Big Easy Express," winner of the 2013 GRAMMY Award for Best Long Form Music Video. Watson's career has extended well beyond OCMS, performing and touring with Dave Rawlings Machine and John C. Reilly and Friends, an ongoing project with Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Tom Brosseau.

Fans of OCMS have come to expect the revelry and high-energy brought to their performances. Watson's solo shows are stripped down and intimate, a mix of music penned throughout his career as well as traditional songs, the outcome of delving into old-time music. Dividing his time between guitar and banjo, Watson's focus is on his voice, which he utilizes with an effortless maturity aptly described by Megan Frye of AllMusic as the "genius of Watson's distinctive howl."

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The Blue Note (MO)

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Dawes with Johnathan Rice, Willie Watson

Wednesday, October 2 · Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:00 PM at The Blue Note (MO)

Tickets Available at the Door