Dawes: North Hills

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By: Dennis Cook

Given the iconic nature of certain albums it’s easy to forget that they were once simply new releases, a fresh sound that refurbishes what we thought old and worn. In 2009 we forget that The Band’s Music From Big Pink and Big Star’s #1 Record were just the initial spark of young men determined to craft music for the ages. An admirable goal, especially within a genre noted for its ephemeral nature, and it usually doesn’t take long when the needle hits the groove for one to figure out who’s the real deal and who’s a chart chasin’ chump. I’ll put money down that North Hills (released September 29 on ATO), the debut from SoCal’s Dawes, is a future classic waiting to happen.

Opener “That Western Skyline” emerges with the patience and split open honesty of Manuel/Dylan’s “Tears of Rage.” Delivered in voices cracked by loss and painful reflection, the song moves deliberately and brilliantly towards a church-like release in its final stretch, where their harmonies grasp at the sky and heart with stirring efficiency. The opening verse paints a scene in a manner that oddly recalls Steely Dan, with Dawes sharing that band’s knack for miniature cinematic touches throughout this debut:

I’d like to let you know
That I do not feel welcome
All the birds, the trees, the falling snow
No, they were not made for me
Oh, and this is where her heart resides
We met in California
She saw the city’s promise reaching through my eyes
And she turned herself away

Part of Dawes appeal is the live-in-your-ears feel of this set. Close your eyes and you can easily conjure up Taylor Goldsmith (guitar, vocals), Tay Straithairn (piano, keys), Griffin Goldsmith (drums) and Wylie Gelber (bass) huddled close in a small room working up these tunes. North Hills is gorgeously and warmly produced by one of Los Angeles secret weapon, Joanthan Wilson, and the sense of music being made by human hands, free from overt manipulation and focused on songwriting and well honed musicianship, permeates the proceedings.

These tunes are infinitely quotable, too, and chock-a-block with everyday wisdom well beyond their age. But shit, some are born with eyes to see and we’re fools to refuse insight when it lands in our laps. A few choice examples:

“You can judge the whole world on the sparkle you think that it lacks/ You can stare into the abyss but it’s staring right back.”

“The only thing that’s scarier than dying is not dying at all.”

“Oh, my dreams did not come true, no, they only came apart.”

“Love is not convenient/ It does not cease at your command.”

“Anybody who makes something new only breaks something else.”

“There’s so many days in a year/ And there’s so many years in my head.”

The music itself matches these sentiments with an emotional candor and an execution that suggests these songs live in their muscles after long hours of woodshedding. Small, inspired touches pepper each track – a well timed uptick in tempo or a heavenly group harmony – and Taylor Goldsmith belts ’em out in a voice with all the potency of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) or the Grizzly Bear dudes but with far less affectation. And while they’re sublime when they sink into meditative terrain, they’re equally compelling when they get to shuffling like “When You Call My Name” and “My Girl To Me,” which shimmies like the offspring of Crazy Horse’s “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” or burning things down with splendid heaviness on closer “Peace In The Valley.”

Dawes joins the small but sweet ranks of Everest, The Moondoggies, These United States, Maplewood and a handful of other new bands returning to the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the ’60s/’70s artists that have endured, evolved and enriched the world with their work. What sets this bunch apart is their refusal to be copyists. Yes, ancestors float in Dawes’ notes. There’s no denying the strong echoes of the Eagles, Poco, Neil Young, et al. but what Dawes has wrought continues the line so the arrow points to the future instead of the past. Like their forebears, this music addresses the things that endure, actively probing around our lives of quiet desperation and endless dreaming. Dawes gets how most of us live bittersweet existences and has crafted an album of stunning resonance, strong feeling and unforced wisdom that’s also a joy to listen to.

JamBase | Hill Country
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