By Steve Hochman
Taylor Goldsmith, singer and guitarist of the Los Angeles quartet Dawes, loves his wordplay. For example, in "Just Beneath the Surface," the opening song of the band's new album, "Stories Don't End," he sings "Between the thoughtless words and the wordless thoughts." Later, in "From the Right Angle," he sings of "a winner's losing streak." But in the song "Just My Luck," he flips a phrase that could serve as the band's mission statement: "I spend my whole life moving forwards. But understand it looking back."
In this case, the looking back is to the dreamy, romantic pop of the late '50s and early '60s. That in itself is a twist on the Dawes sound. In two previous albums, the band had largely positioned itself squarely in the world of L.A.'s '70s scene, a sense cinched by the band's close ties to such esteemed figures as Jackson Browne and Graham Nash -- Browne even took Dawes on the road as his backing group in 2012. It's still hard not to hear those associations in various spots on this album. You don't have to dig too deep in "Just Beneath the Surface" to get the Browne influence.
But rather than constructing an inescapable box from its iconic influences, Dawes shrewdly uses them to build a solid foundation for its own evolving sound: the forward/back approach played out in enough variations so as never to become formulaic. Producer Jacquire King guides the balance deftly, as he has in previous work with Tom Waits, Kings of Leon and Norah Jones. And the band (Goldsmith joined by his brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, bassist Wylie Gelber and keyboard player Tay Strathairn) balances some very straightforward playing with an array of ear-catching nuances.
The fingerpicking at the start of "Someone Will" could have come straight from a Glen Campbell hit and it's no coincidence: Dawes was house band at a Hollywood Bowl tribute to the Rhinestone Cowboy. Nostalgic, sure. But still a winning surprise, serving to draw us in to what unfolds as an increasingly distinctive sound not just in this song but through the rest of the album.
Ironically, perhaps, the most distinctive moment sees the band looking back to its own past. "Hey Lover" is the one song not written by Goldsmith but rather by his childhood friend, Blake Mills, who co-founded Dawes' predecessor group and has since become an accomplished artist and producer.
Another iconic vintage influence, Bob Dylan, famously said, "Don't look back," and as an artist has tended to live by those words. Well, right now Dawes is out on the road as Dylan's opening act. We'll have to see if the band takes that maxim to heart. Meanwhile, "Stories Don't End" closes with a reprise of opener "Just Beneath the Surface." It's just one more look back before the next move forward.