It’s been fascinating to follow Dawes over the course of its decade-plus existence and never more so than since 2016’s We’re All Gonna Die. Produced by former group member Blake Mills, that album plays like a brainstorming session conducted to figure out how the band could move beyond its by then well-established Laurel Canyon nouveau folk-rock style. Two years later, on Passwords, Taylor Goldsmith and company furthered a distillation process actually begun with their on-line only live release of early 2017’s We’re All Gonna Live (an almost immediate backtracking of the aforementioned studio project).
Continuing to nurture mature pop music equal parts brains and soul on Good Luck With Whatever, Dawes solidifies an even more finite approach to writing and recording. This seventh studio effort of theirs not only represents a logical progression for the quartet, but it also augurs well for its continued evolution. There’s a special emphasis on ensemble playing in service of the songs reminiscent of The Band and that focus precludes much conventional soloing over the course of the LP’s roughly forty minutes playing time. Lee Pardini’s piano on “Between Zero and the One,” for instance, proceeds directly from the tune’s refrain and remains of a piece with the basic arrangement in doing so.
Radiating an air of dignified formality, the sounds of the keyboard also act as commentary on chief songwriter Goldsmith’s carefully-crafted character portrait(s). The cerebral nature of such material may not allow for transparent overtures to commercialism—there’s no “When the Tequila Runs Out” here—but most of these performances are readily accessible, if not overtly catchy. Produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlisle, Jason Isbell) during sessions conducted at Nashville’s famed RCA Studio, Dawes’ playing (sans ostensible contributions of note from others) offers a simplicity that’s in stark relief to the involved lyrics.
Such purposeful contradiction lies at the heart of most of these original songs and begins immediately with the rollicking opener. “Still Feel Like A Kid,” in fact, is a paradox in action where Taylor’s lead vocal, like his lyrics, sound forced in comparison to the freewheeling musicianship. Yet there’s an almost subliminal sense of abandon in his singing too and that corresponds to the motion of the rhythm section, drummer Griffin Goldsmith and bassist Wylie Gelber. Such visceral elements become ever-so-subtly highlighted in Grammy Award-winner Cobb’s audio mix.
To that point, this particular instance connects directly, if not obviously, with the rough edge in the electric guitars of the elder Goldsmith immediately following on the title tune. Good Luck With Whatever may or may not be a formal concept album, but there’s nonetheless a distinct narrative arising from the drama inherent in tunes like “St. Augustine At Night.” And it’s an especially astute track sequencing to encounter that acoustic-based cut juxtaposed with “None Of My Business” where stock rock riffs constitute the most derivative mark of Goldsmith’s songwriting.
Similarly-repetitive rhythms and chording also comprise “Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?.” But there the arrangement amplifies the confrontational attitude in the number. Likewise, the tenderness of the author’s singing on “Didn’t Fix Me” sounds authentic rather than contrived. Both of which artful recordings only make “Free As We Wanna Be” sound even more clumsy; it’s really not so much that the vocal and instrumental flourishes echo Springsteen too plainly, but that the melodrama conjured up through those gestures runs contrary to the command of understatement Dawes so often displays elsewhere on this record.
It’s hard to tell if the title of Dawes’ Rounder Records debut is intended to be ironic or sarcastic, but likely as not, it’s both. The nine tracks that makeup Good Luck With Whatever, taken together (and notwithstanding the slight blemishes therein) offer as much cautious optimism as healthy skepticism, a precarious mindset to be sure, but certainly one worth emulating as the year 2020 continues to unfold.