Rock Preview: Dawes — Never Predictable

The group’s songs range from the cynical to the sweet without losing their sincerity, and that may be Dawes’ most defining trait as it shifts its musical focal point.

Dawes. Photo: Magdalena Wosinska.

By Scott McLennan

It’s impressive, though not totally surprising, that Dawes has traveled with two of the Wilburys.

The decade old Dawes shares as much with the musical sensibilities of the Traveling Wilburys — that wonderfully oddball assemblage of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne that came together in 1988 – as it does with peers.

Dawes recently wrapped up a few dates opening for Lynne’s revived ELO. Dawes opened for Dylan on a string of dates in 2013.

For starters, Dawes’ albums actually sound like albums—collections of songs meant to go together. That may not seem like a big deal, but it sort of is in the streaming age when so much music is consumed from curated playlists and via shuffle mode.

And Dawes has found its footing by making noticeable artistic leaps from record to record. The band’s sound isn’t particularly left-field, but the group, to its credit, hasn’t settled into a predictable groove.

“We can’t put out ‘North Hills’ over and over,” said Dawes bassist Wylie Gelber referring to his band’s breakout debut from 2009.

That ambling bit of folk-pop is downright skeletal compared to the amped buzz coursing through Dawes’ latest, Passwords. The echoes of ’70s Laurel Canyon folk rock heard in earlier Dawes records have transformed into sinewy SoCal soul, which suits songwriter Taylor Goldsmith’s expanding palette.

Passwords opens with “Living in the Future” and “Stay Down,” a pair of broad takes on today’s unsettled social and political landscapes. As the album progresses, the focus tightens back on the interpersonal and introspective.

Goldsmith’s songs range from the cynical to the sweet without losing their sincerity, and that may be Dawes’ most defining trait as it shifts its musical focal point.

Gelber said that Goldsmith arrived in the studio with bare basics for songs and the rest of the band jumped in on the arrangements, with keyboardist Lee Pardini doing great work to stretch the tunes via all sorts of tones and textures.

But, even with these bigger, bolder sounds, Dawes should fit right in with the Americana-leaning Festival at the Farm happening this weekend at Prowse Farm in Canton, MA.

The festival begins on Saturday, September 15 with Amos Lee as the headliner. Trampled by Turtles, Mandolin Orange, Amy Helm, and others round out the festival’s first day.

Dawes plays on Sunday, September 16, capping a day that also features Martin Sexton, Joseph, The Wild Reeds, Suitcase Junket, and others.

Even with its catalog of sound-shifting albums, Dawes has nurtured a healthy fan base, through it has meant fielding the occasional “I can’t believe you went in that direction” complaint.

“We’ve certainly heard some backlash against whatever we did after North Hills (the group’s 2009 debut studio album) ’” Gelber said. “But new people come on board, and old fans come back.”

And having shared the stage with bands that the members of Dawes have long idolized has taught the groups a few things.

For example, watching Lynne and ELO was an experience Gelber won’t forget.

“They’d play this perfectly arranged wild pop and mix in elements of the Beatles. It was just unbelievable,” he said. “It kind of made us say, ‘We were born in the wrong time.’”

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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