Newer bands who adopt a more timeless (read: retro) style of music tend to fall into two categories: those who fully embrace the associations with the past (think Alabama Shakes), and those who would distance themselves from labels that tie them to the past, attempting to carve their own niche without forsaking who they are musically. With their third studio release Stories Don’t End, folk-rock act Dawes fall somewhere in between.
Hailed as the modern-day incarnation and bastions of the Laurel Canyon country-rock sound (a la Jackson Browne and Neil Young), the boys of Dawes have tried to shed their familiar skin with this new album in three ways: 1) They changed coasts, trading southern California for Asheville, NC to record the record; 2) They tapped producer Jacquire King (Of Monsters and Men, Kings of Leon) to tweak their sound; and 3) They deliberately explored different instrumentations, rhythms and arrangements for their songs. The end result is admittedly the band’s most polished, produced and complex collection to date, and certainly nothing to shrug off.
But did it do the trick? Nope. Dawes is still very much a Laurel Canyon band. They just took those dusty shoes and applied a fresh coat of polish on them.
In fact, the added production value has done little more to these songs than make them sound, um, more produced. There are moments when the sound shifts a little more toward middle-of-the-road pop (example: “Bear Witness)—a sound one might suppose the band would like to avoid, seeing it is a bit forgettable—but songs like “Just Beneath the Surface,” “From a Window Seat,” “Most People” and a handful of others aren’t fooling anyone. You take away the multi-tracking and overdubs (which they will pretty much have to do when they take these tunes on the road), and you still have pretty much the same Dawes. They can’t stop being who they are.
There’s one point on the album that reveals this probably more than anywhere else, and that’s the band’s cover of Blake Mills’ “Hey Lover.” This one made me chuckle because it sounds so much like how we expect this band to sound—almost as if you can hear them thinking collectively, “We wanna be new, we wanna be different, we wanna be…aw, crap, let’s just jam.” Not saying that’s what happened–that’s just what it sounds like.
But here’s the thing: Dawes might have failed to tweak their sound, but it’s not a failure if their sound didn’t really need tweaking in the first place. For what it’s worth, this is a band that is very, very good at what they do—and that’s what their fans want, anyhow, even if it does sound a bit like what has come before. It isn’t the changing of their sound that makes this band current—it’s the passion with which they perform the sounds in the modern day. That’s what makes Dawes a great rock band for today—and the good news is, even applying some production spit & polish hasn’t disguised that fact. It could have been an experiment gone bad, but Stories Don’t End is thankfully still a very good record.
So Dawes tried to distance themselves a bit from the labels of the past, and it didn’t really work. So what? Their loss is still our gain; they gave us another great collection of songs. The only thing that could make them better, in my opinion, is if they ditch this futile attempt to separate from the past and leap with both feet into the timelessness of their sound. Dawes is easily “Laurel Canyon” for the next generation—and there’s nothing wrong with that, not at all.