Album Review

A Matter of Production

Dawes - We're All Gonna Die

Dawes, hailing from Los Angeles, emerged in 2009, part of a wave of urban Americana bands, including Blitzen Trapper (Portland, OR), Avett Brothers (Charlotte, NC), and Mumford & Sons (London, UK), among others. From their debut album, North Hills, the band mined a classic country-rock/folk-rock sound and earnest lyricism reminiscent of various 70’s titans, most ostensibly Jackson Browne. While the band has remained stylistically consistent over their five studio recordings, their use of production has evolved, perhaps radically; their first two albums, and possibly their third, highlighting a rawer, less treated sound, instrumentation remaining “pure,” the use of (post-recording) effects minimal. 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands, while featuring what might have been the band’s best songwriting set to date, also introduced a heightened reliance on production; i.e., chorus and compression, resulting in a slicker and smoother sound.

Production effects play an even more significant role in the band’s new release, We’re All Gonna Die. Taylor Goldsmith, who has written or co-written most of Dawes’ songs, including the ten current tracks, continues to display a skill for lyricizing homespun wisdom and existential quandaries to which most listeners can immediately relate. The songs on We’re All Gonna Die, while not the band’s strongest, are at least intermittently engaging, even if the production effects occasionally play too prominent a role. This album ultimately marks a deeper foray into 70’s Americana, albeit combined with a further study of early/mid 80’s production approaches; i.e., Steve Miller collaborating with the Cars, perhaps America stepping into a studio with The Fixx.

The opening track begins with a riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a Warren Zevon or Don Henley tune, perhaps even a Thriller-era Michael Jackson or Sammy Hagar/Van Halen song, Taylor Goldsmith’s voice drenched in dry (compressed) fuzz. The second track, the title song, is reminiscent of the Eagles, circa The Long Run. Goldsmith sings:

I need to know your secret
I’m asking you for help
How do I fall in love with anything
Like you seem to do so well?

Track three, “Roll with the Punches,” offers one of the more memorable hooks of the album, the instrumentally simple verse seguing into “You just roll with the punches / Until you can’t feel a thing”—in terms of effective verse-chorus dynamics and crafting of hummable hooks, more in line with various tracks from All Your Favorite Bands. Ditto “Less Than Five Miles Away,” the ringing acoustic in the background and Goldsmith’s falsetto reminding me of Freedom-era Neil Young. Griffin Goldsmith’s snappy and compressed drums, alternately intriguing and distractive, sustain the atmospheric reference to 70’s and 80’s recordings, while additionally offering, perhaps, a tip of the hat to contemporary electronica.

“For No Good Reason” also stands out as a substantial track, offering a winning instrumental intro that recurs between choruses and verses, the song conjuring a more sentimental Tom Petty, circa Wildflowers:

Maybe it’s some cold dark truth that makes her cry
Maybe it’s an ancient past-life memory recalled
Maybe it’s a chemical that got in her eye
Maybe it’s for no good reason at all.

“Quitter” is melodically enrolling, even if its trendy aphorisms are slightly cliché; driving rhythms and segues bathed in ringing distortion aspiring toward the anthemic: “You’re gonna have to quit everything / Until you find one thing you want.”

While there’s much to appreciate on We’re All Gonna Die, I question the band’s use of production options, especially when these treatments compromise the emotionality of the songs, at least some of which would have benefited from being placed in a more natural/less glossy sonic atmosphere (hello, Rick Rubin). Also, the songwriting frequently falls short of the level achieved on previous albums, particularly All Your Favorite Bands. We’re All Gonna Die probably won’t corral new listeners, but let's hope it doesn’t alienate established fans.

Just what I was afraid of.

I came to Dawes just a year or so ago, and I absorbed their first four albums in that span. So while I'm a big fan now, I'm not a long time one. That's why the new sound on this album is not a disappointment, but an excitement. Many of their past songs fell into a mid-tempo melodic groove with some catchy hooks and poignant lyrics. So hearing the sonic embellishments on this album and new rhythms and instrumentation is a fresh take on the old sound. And the "old" Dawes is still there; I can't think of a better ballad they've done than "Roll Tide."

Thanks for the post, Jeff. I'm glad that the album lands for you and hope that it will for others as well. I still find too much of it, including "Roll Tide," over produced, a bit sentimental lyrically, and somewhat predictable melodically. But again, I hope it lands with others. I listen to the Dawes quite a bit and have seen the band live three times, so I certainly wish them well.