Dawes Leave “Laurel” For Polished Pastures on ‘We’re All Gonna Die’ (ALBUM REVIEW)


dawesDawes take a courageous step with their fifth album, essentially deferring to one-time member Blake Mills to produce them as they undergo personnel transition. The result is something of a mixed bag, albeit one that may bring them more listeners than would otherwise accrue if they remained wholly and completely tied to the contemporary Laurel Canyon sound they’re purveyed to this point.

In concept at least, We’re All Gonna Die is no more less an important album than any other for Dawes, except that it catches them at a point of  departure of long-time keyboardist Tay Strathairn replaced by Lee Pardini (guitarist Duane Betts had been touring with the group some months prior and is notably absent from these proceedings). A much more polished and pop-structured  sound comes to the fore with  “When the Tequila’s All Gone” and while the initial single from any album may or may not be fully representative of the rest of the recordings around it, there’s no mistaking that the collective feel of a band, inherent in the best of Dawes’ previous work, has dissipated more than a little here.

To be fair, the turnover in the keyboard spot might’ve led to unsettled sensation regardless of the approach to this project. But Betts, who might’ve cushioned the changeover with his stellar guitar work, is nowhere to be found among these ten tracks, too many of which, like “Less than Five Miles Away,” leave the overall impression of chief songwriter and vocalist sounding like he’s making a solo album accompanied by sidemen. Dawes may have reasonably given the benefit of doubt to Mills, a multi-instrumentalist and recording artist/performer in his own right (as well as an original member of this group), but even a track as undeniably catchy as  “One of Us”  reinforces the impression of anonymity, due to the electronic overlay dominating that cut in place of emphasis on acoustic and electric guitars.

Similarly errant execution in the studio also afflicted Dawes’ 2013 album Stories Don’t End, but here the misdirection comes at the expense of  guitars in the mix. For instance, Goldsmith’s customarily articulate fills and solos would lift “Roll With the Punches.” Meanwhile, the extra emphasis on harmony singing throughout We’re All Gonna Die, a virtue bolstered  by sit-ins from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, doesn’t quite offset the brittle synthetic timbres so often used in place of fretboard instruments. The slick approach gives short shrift to  material such as “For No Good Reason,” so much so the quietly stalwart persona composer Goldsmith has created through the previous Dawes albums ends up camouflaged in the production.

The polish is undeniably attractive potentially so for music lovers new to Dawes,which is no doubt the point. Yet the group singing, star-studded as it is, often rings hollow while  the cosmetic allure of  “Picture of A Man” can’t hide how stiff the musicians sound as they play. In contrast to the robotic feel there, “Less than Five Miles Away” is a vivid song arranged and played in a suitably evocative manner, rooted in the insistent drumming of  Taylor’s sibling Griffin as it locks in with the similarly prodding bass of Wylie Gelber.

On its own terms and as a freshened depiction of Dawes’ innate virtues, that’s the most successful cut on the album, followed in short order by the almost equally astute “Roll Tide.” Here Griffin Goldsmith turns the sports lingo on its head with his singing, its forlorn quality enhanced by the sound of strings (real or synthetic doesn’t matter here). He’s likewise emotive, albeit with a borderline nasty attitude, during “Quitter,” surrounded by biting instrumental accompaniment from the entire band, a striking instance where Blake Mills forged a powerful track properly from the material, rather than impose his ideas on a song.

“As if By Design” works well as modification of  Dawes’ folk-rock style because its arch piano combines with trumpet for a picturesque setting matching the verbal images in the lyrics. It is, perhaps, a knowing piece of self-commentary from the group itself that augers well for their future (on their own terms) and provides encouraging and effective final punctuation to We’re All Gonna Die.


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One Response

  1. I think that Dawes was finally satisfied in capturing what they sound like playing together in a room with the All Your Favorite Bands record. As a listener, it is apparent to me that Dawes had been trying to achieve that since their first record with Jonathan Wilson in 2009 and had not felt that their foundational sound with their playing (like at a live show) had been conveyed appropriately.

    These are the best songs that Taylor Goldsmith has ever written. The lyrical material seems to be very congruent with the thematic purpose of this record. When listening to this record, I think it is important to process the lyricism and the maturity that he continue to hone in on as a writer and artist. While I acknowledge that the production by Mills is noticeable and to some can be viewed as distraction, I think that this work is their best and most reflective of the continual progression they have made with every record.

    While the aesthetics and sounds are more easily noticed and are more easily identified as different from their previous records, their material is very similar in structure and arrangement as it has always been somewhat traditional in song structure. I think Blake Mills deserves credit for his ability to orchestrate and “pull out” varying elements of their playing and the development of those parts in the studio setting.

    While I acknowledge that this band is from California and draws many comparisons to the time of the 60’s and 70’s, I think listeners need to expand and see their interests and topics of Goldsmith as a writer to see more of their influences. I think Warren Zevon’s record, Life’ll Kill Ya may be one for listeners to expose themselves to.

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