Dolly Varden: The Panic Bell

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By: Dennis Cook

This is great. Sometimes it’s best to get right to the point so what we really want to say doesn’t get lost in “a muddle of nervous words,” as Neil Finn once put it. Dolly Varden‘s latest, The Panic Bell (Undertow), has a similar clarity, all the fat trimmed so the shining meat of things is revealed.

Within a couple tracks you know you’re in the presence of a band at the height of their powers. This is what Gram Parsons called Cosmic American Music, an incongruous melting pot of country, r ‘n’ b, gospel, and good ol’ rock. The best practitioners, like Dolly Varden, transcend their influences to make ingredients we know taste fresh again. Here, the 12-year old Chicago band carries on the legacies of Charlie Rich (“Sad Panda Clown’s Lament”) and the Grass Roots (“Everything”) as much as dear Gram.

Led by married songwriter-singers Diane Christiansen and Steve Dawson, their music has the inspired construction of The Raspberries, Bill Withers, The dBs and Nick Lowe. Irresistible melodies are bolstered by restrained pedal steel and constantly engaging studio twists. As good as “Everything” is, it’s the stuttering old time radio-esque dénouement that sticks in your craw, just one of many perfect little touches.

Floating above it all are Dawson and Christiansen’s glorious voices. She’s got Laura Nyro’s tenderness mingled with Loretta’s Lynn’s grit. He’s got Daryl Hall’s blue-eyed soul and the compelling ache of Big Star’s late Chris Bell. When you hear folks do it properly like this suddenly the competition seems even more wanting than usual.

The Panic Bell is an addictive, enormously thoughtful pleasure. Like fellow lifers The Mother Hips, Centro-matic and The Smithereens, they remind us how potent and enjoyable the fruits of seasoned veterans can be.

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The Panic Bell is available now on Itunes, and hits stores on April 17th. Also highly recommended is Steve Dawson’s 2006 solo release, Sweet Is The Anchor, the finest piece of soft rock to NOT actually rub shoulders with Al Stewart and 10CC in 1976.