Dolly Varden is a gem of a band. On Forgiven Now, their fourth record, the Chicago quintet continues to refine their appealing blend of pop and country. Husband and wife Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen exude warmth and good taste.
It doesn't hurt that Dawson and Christiansen's voices sound great together. But what works best about the band is the songwriting. Most songs are penned by Dawson, who shares Joe Henry and Freedy Johnston's gift to tell a great story in part by leaving a bit unsaid between the lines.
At his best, as on "Overwhelming", Dawson reels you right in with carefully selected, perfectly delivered words: "So Jesus came without warning/Right over your bed and hovered like a flower/In the coldest hour of the morning/Wiping your lips clean, dusting off your good dreams." On many of Dawson's songs, the nuances are right (including the greasy slide guitar from Mark Balletto on "Overwhelming"), and the truths run deep.
Christiansen's songwriting is more prominent and accomplished here than on prior releases -- and that means more of her winning voice, which sounds like 1 a.m. and a bottle of high-end cognac. Her songs ("Wish I Were Here" and "Time For Me To Leave" the standouts here) have an immediate quality that complements Dawson's more studious style. Christiansen and Dawson seem to especially enjoy themselves when they perform a true duet, as on "There's A Magic Here" (inspired by classic George Jones/Tammy Wynette hits).
Though Forgiven Now is less exuberant than the band's stellar 2000 effort, The Dumbest Magnets, producer Brad Jones has again captured the gorgeous textures of Dolly Varden. Much like Lucinda Williams' Essence, this record rewards any extra effort the listener puts in to explore its intelligence and beauty.