I first came across Dawes when a friend recommended I check out their second album, Nothing is Wrong, shortly after its release in summer 2011. Initially, I was struck by the same thing everyone else is first struck by when they hear Dawes: their harmony-coated melodies and their music’s remarkable ability to conjure the spirit of another time. Apparently, other listeners and critics sensed this feeling too: nearly every YouTube comment or article one could find on the band makes some reference to names of the 70’s folk-era. This comparison has been made so frequently, in fact, that an interview with American Songwriter prompted front man Taylor Goldsmith to remark, “We don’t want someone to say, ‘You’re the band that sounds like you’re from the 70’s’ anymore.”
Upon Taking Goldsmith’s words into consideration, I finally removed my “this-sounds-like-something-else” impulse and found that Dawes’ songwriting is not rooted in some other place or time, but within a mindset of simplicity and straightforward sincerity. Just listening to Goldsmith harmonize with his brother and drummer Griffin on an acoustic rendition of “My Way Back Home” shows the beauty of song, as if to pat the listener right in the cheek and says, “See, silly, it doesn’t have to be so complicated in order for it to be good.”
This ode to an unpretentious aesthetic is the band’s credo, and their newest effort, Stories Don’t End, certainly reinforces the band’s desire for straightforwardness. But above all things, SDE reveals Dawes as a band that has progressed in its musicality, both as individuals and as a cohesive unit. These Californians have not only gotten better at their respective instruments; they’ve gotten better at playing music with each other—a defining characteristic that separates good bands from great bands.
Stories Don’t End begins with the rolling drums, the quick bass, and the harmonized ooh’s and ah’s of “Just Beneath the Surface.” This moment announces a slightly refined Dawes’ sound— Taylor Goldsmith’s acoustic melodies from the previous albums North Hills and Nothing is Wrong have been replaced by an increased devotion to lead electric guitar. His scattered Telecaster licks give color to Tay Strathairn’s glowing organ, Wylie Gelber’s pulsating bass line, and his brother Griffin’s tight but simple drum pattern. What stays true to the classic Dawes formula is Goldsmith’s lyrical outlook: his words are bright-eyed, slightly philosophical, and endearing. “Just beneach the surface/ Is where you will stay kept,” he sings. At this point, Dawes reminds us that despite this slightly refined approach, they haven’t changed their message.
Not enough can be said about the development of Goldsmith’s guitar playing displayed on SDE, and this progression shows itself best in the opening moments of the fourth track “Most People.” The cadence of the tune is surprisingly slow for having such a rockous guitar opening, but it is this unexpected tempo that makes the song so insatiable. Top it off with some classic, good-hearted, Goldsmith lyricism and the incredible pop of Griffin’s rim shots and the result is the most instantaneously impressive song of the album.
SDE’s first single, “From a Window Seat” delivers a bird’s eye view of life on an airplane, set to up-tempo yet loungy instrumentals. The catchiness of the verse’s instrumental melody leaves the listener bobbing their head and cries for radio airplay.
“Something in Common” has peculiar chord structure that sits back and changes in the manner of an old jazz tune, but its lyrics are its greatest asset. In arguably the most touching point of the album, Goldsmith addresses the margins between his ideals and a sometimes-disappointed reality. He sings, “The way that she remembers me is not the way I really am/ But I’m hoping they’ve got something in common.” The sentimentality of this moment is only equaled once more on SDE, by the closing moments of the record in a more intimate, “reprised” version of “Just Beneath the Surface.” This slower, more airy version of the song serves as a sweet, memorable, and compelling bookend to the whole album.
Stories Don’t End indicates that some slight compromises have been made for the Dawes’ sound. For one, the blood harmonies of Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith are less at the forefront. It’s not that the brothers’ vocal harmonies are non existent or not impressive; on the contrary, Griffin frequently sings parts that are as strong as ever—but they are set back in the mix, like a modern day country harmony: always there, but never quite in focus. I anticipate this was a conscious decision made by Dawes in order to step free from their oppressively ubiquitous comparison to the harmony-based Laurel Canyon school of music. If that was the intention, they succeeded: Dawes sounds less Laurel Canyon in SDE than they ever have, a transition they have made rather seamlessly.
Stories Don’t End is a marquis moment for Dawes, and has announced their arrival at a level of publicity they haven’t experienced before. The Los Angeles group’s third album surely displays a professionalism for anyone that hasn’t heard them yet, but most importantly, Stories Don’t End defiantly establishes a unique identity for a group that has struggled to attain such in the past. With this effort, Dawes has stepped out of another generation’s shadow and into their own light.