Dawes - North Hills
Record Label: ATO Records
Release Date: Sept. 29, 2009
Say what you will about David J. Matthews, but the man knows good music. Leaving an opinion of his jam band aside, there is little reason to dismiss his nine-year old RCA imprint ATO Records. In less than a decade the label has signed a bevy of critically-lauded musicians, many of whom are at the apex of their genres. For those not fully familiar, the roster includes but is not limited to: Alberta Cross, My Morning Jacket, Patty Griffin, David Gray, Rodrigo y Gabriela, the North Mississippi All-Stars, Radiohead and countless others. The label's latest signing is Malibu, CA's roots-rockers Dawes.
North Hills is the major-label debut from this precocious quartet (formerly known as Simon Dawes) and the disc is a collection of 11, near-flawless roots-rock offerings that drip with such a defined sense of soul, grit and harmony, it feels nearly criminal to label this album contemporary. Evoking the sun-drenched whimsy of 1960s Laurel Canyon, the album begins with the pensive California valentine, "That Western Skyline," in which vocalist Taylor Goldsmith sings, "Oh the trees, the birds and the falling snow, no, they were not meant for me." In much the same way that "Round Here," begins August and Everything After in such a profound and poetic manner, so too does "Western Skyline." In some ways, every song that follows will attempt to touch its grandeur, while also trying to make their own collective cinematic arguments.
Lead single "Love is All I Am," follows and it has much of the same gentle simplicity of its predecessor and is equally as candid. Though it's a bit daring to open up an album with two five-minute soul-infused ballads, there's something undeniably captivating about the disc's first ten minutes. Perhaps it's the sound of a soul being soothed, or just the band's innate ability to paint serenity, but this is arguably the most memorable first 10 minutes of any album released in the last few years.
Goldsmith and crew decide to up the sonic ante on the mid-tempo, "When You Call My Name," a rousing, country rocker that finds the frontman singing, "So if you want to get to know me, follow my smile down to its curves, all these lines are born in sorrows and pleasures, and every man ends up with the face that he deserves." The band tackles four-part harmonies on the campfire singalong "Give Me Time," which features sultry fingerpicking, crisp vocals and a sonic landscape that seems culled from time spent at the Monterrey Pop Festival.
The apex of North Hills is the stirring, five-minute anthem "When My Time Comes," an ode to faith, salvation and redemption, in which Goldsmith croons, "And now the only piece of advice that continues to help is anyone that's making anything new, only breaks something else." A heart-on-the-sleeve confession, the song is the sound of a frontman trying to find his place in the world and attempting to make sense of his whirlwind life. To call it one of the best songs released this year is to put it mildly, it is admittedly one of the best songs released this decade. A timeless, tour-de-force, "When My Time Comes," is the kind of songs that musicians will spend lifetimes trying to write and never achieve.
As one might expect the album dips a little on the freewheeling, Easy Rider vibe of "God Rest My Soul," which is one of the album's two underwhelming moments. Labeling the track a disappointment is probably unfair, but suffice it to say there's little about the foray that touches the timeless sincerity of the previous five. Lyrically, it's a home run as Goldsmith admits, "The only thing scarier than dying is not dying." On the brutally honest "Bedside Manner," Goldsmith reaches out to a lover and paints a poignant picture of a troubled, lovesick existence.
The album's second swell is on the folksy "My Girl To Me," another attempt at 60s-infused bar room rock that seems to borrow much of the same trappings as "God Rest My Soul." While its not a dud by any stretch, there's little about it that stands firm or confident next to the rest of the album's compositions. The brittle ballad "Take Me Out of the City," follows and it is for all intents and purposes a bare-bones exercise in how to do and say so much with so little.
The gospel-infused "Let Me Be Your Anchor," follows and its the album's last mid-tempo offering. A ruminative declaration of romance, the song's hymnal sentiments make for another engaging listen. The disc ends with the world-weary "Peace in the Valley," in which the song's placid first three minutes give way to an instrumental swirl of scorching guitars, stirring organ and plaintive piano.
Expertly produced by Jonathan Wilson (Elvis Costello, Rilo Kiley, Johnathan Rice), North Hills is the sound of something truly astonishing beginning to take shape. Though musicians diving back into history to write songs that evoke another era is not entirely original, what these California kids do on North Hills takes it to an entirely different level. Loaded with a maturity far beyond their years (lead singer Goldsmith is only 23, his brother/drummer is just 18) Dawes are admittedly well on their way to something truly awe-inspiring. Having shared the stage with the likes of Wolfmother, Maroon 5 and Incubus, they are no stranger to a big stage. That is of course a good thing, because with a release this promising, larger stages seems a surefire certainty. Take some time to sit down with this release and let it seep into the soul, there's a good chance ten years down the line, upcoming musicians will point to this release as the one that made them want to try harder.
Not too kean on the goofy album cover art, but the way you described the music intrigues me to check it out. This is a really high opinion... "song of the decade". I have no choice but to check it out. Great review!