South Lake Tahoe…It was just about the last song Taylor Goldsmith wrote before Dawes hit the studio: “When My Times Comes,” a rousing declaration of his hunger to be better, wiser, sharper—as a writer, as a person, as the singer in a band. But now that Dawes’ debut album has arrived, it’s fair to say that Goldsmith’s time is coming sooner than he’d planned.
A graceful and poetic set of Southern-tinged yet firmly El Lay rock’n’roll, the Jonathan Wilson-produced NORTH HILLS is an electrifying and accomplished freshman effort. From the ruminative opener “That Western Skyline” to the joyous twang of “When You Call My Name” to the harmony-soaked “Take Me Out of the City,” NORTH HILLS makes it easy to hear why Daytrotter’s Sean Moeller has already called it “hands down one of the finest records of 2009… Dawes is a perfect band.”
The Los Angeles quartet—Goldsmith, 23, (vocals, guitar), his brother Griffin Goldsmith, 18, (drums, vocals), Wylie Gelber, 21 (bass) and Alex Casnoff, 22 (piano, vocals) […however, Tay Strathairn plays piano, vocals on the record] —shares DNA with Simon Dawes, Taylor and Wylie’s teenaged band with Blake Mills, but is a vastly different, more creatively audacious beast. “I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for what it really meant to write songs back then,” says Taylor Goldsmith. “They were more a vehicle to get to be a young guy in a band.” As Simon Dawes dissolved, he realized rock’n’roll was more than just a lifestyle choice—that even if he never got to be as brilliant as his favorite artists (a list that ranges from Nabokov, Fitzgerald and Rilke to Will Oldham, John Prine and Townes Van Zandt), that was where he had to aim. “I wanted to write songs that actually meant something to me,” he says. “Those guys helped shape my character, how I look at the world. We started Dawes with that intention.”
They kept the “Dawes” part of the name in tribute to Taylor and Griffin’s country music-loving grandfather, Dawes Lafayette Goldsmith. Their father, former Tower of Power/Sweathog singer Lenny Goldsmith, was more a soul and R&B guy—he could not even abide Bob Dylan. “He told me, ‘you don’t want to listen to that, he can’t sing very well,'” Goldsmith remembers. He listened anyway—Lenny later came around—and also grew to love such classic L.A.-nurtured artists as Gram Parsons, Crosby Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne. It’s a set of influences that has also impacted the Delta Spirit, Wilco, Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes, “but where BoH and FF generously borrow from that California sound,” opines the LA Weekly’s Randall Roberts, “Dawes breathes it.”
“We’re very much aware of the fact that we’re from Los Angeles, California, and all of the associations that come with that,” Goldsmith says. “A lot of our favorite records were made in L.A., and while they have this overwhelming American feel to them, they also have this Los Angeles resonance, and Los Angeles cynicism that’s entirely unique. I’m always happy people notice that in us.”
It was probably inevitable, then that they would make NORTH HILLS with Wilson, the musician and producer (Jenny Lewis, Gary Louris, Jonathan Rice, Elvis Costello) known for hosting weekly jam sessions at his Laurel Canyon cottage (which also serves as a recording studio). Back in the day, Laurel Canyon was where Joni Mitchell, CSN, the Mamas and the Papas and the Eagles all spent some of their time. “There’s that romantic aspect of Laurel Canyon, yeah—Jonathan embodied that,” says Goldsmith. But more importantly, “the way he records was very much in line with what we respond to musically. We did it all on two-inch tape, with no computers, which really forced us to step up. It was recorded live, and all the mics were right next to each other, so we couldn’t just keep an acoustic guitar take, or re-do a drum take. It added a spontaneous vibe that hopefully comes off more inspired.”
Mission accomplished on “That Western Skyline,” the last song Goldsmith wrote (“When My Time Comes” being second-to-last), the first song Dawes recorded and a true first take. “Except for some overdubbed tambourine, it’s exactly as it was,” he says. “We recorded that within the first hour we were there.” The song’s admittedly autobiographical story of a guy from L.A. and a girl from Alabama kicks off NORTH HILLS with a searching, lovelorn tone. It’s immediately followed by “Love Is All I Am,” so gentle you can hear the fingers hit guitar strings, an older song that was an attempt by Goldsmith to transform life into insight. “A lot of my early songs were from this place of being a young guy who was unsure why he felt certain things, and what he felt,” he says. “I was just trying to organize those thoughts the best I can with words and music.”
Other highlights include the hymnal/boogie ballad “Bedside Manner,” Straithairn’s Band-like piano/organ on the groovy and melodic “My Girl to Me” and the deceptively world-weary (but guitar-scorched) closer “Peace in the Valley,” in which Goldsmith winks at the old spiritual and manages to find the poetry in something quite mundane—his last house in the San Fernando Valley.
These days, Goldsmith and the rest of Dawes don’t have a home—except maybe onstage, where the music’s louder and a whole lot wilder, Goldsmith putting all of his emotion on the line each a night. “A full-on rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut of classic dimensions and potentially legendary proportions,” the Bluegrass Special’s David McGee says of the live show, which was also good enough to get Dawes signed to ATO after a single live performance in New York during their tour with Other Lives and Delta Spirit. So who needs a place to live? “Homes, money, wonderful relationships with girls—this lifestyle isn’t conducive to any of those things,” says Goldsmith. “But it’s forced us to give Dawes everything we can. We’ve put ourselves in a position where it’s all we have.”
And what they have, in NORTH HILLS and beyond, is quite a lot.
Title: Dawes Plays At Harrahs in South Lake
Location: South Lake Tahoe
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