Back-to-basics, though the basics are sold
Will the real Dawes please stand up? What started as a competent folk-rock band became overstuffed and unrecognizable on the one-two punch of We’re All Gonna Die and Passwords. The guitars verged on stoner rock on “Living in the Future,” “Roll With the Punches” and “We’re All Gonna Die;” the production felt rushed and unmastered and existing synthetic elements persisted and festered in an unflattering way with the glitchy bass on “Quitter,” the Foreigner-Esque keys “Feed the Fire” and the ugly spurts of sci-fi keys on “My Greatest Invention.” Their material was always listenable due to their talents and frontman Taylor Goldsmith, who split the difference between Springsteen and Son Volt with real heartfelt anguish and charisma. He’s a great singer who likely will have a spectacular solo career one day. Sadly, even though their seventh record Good Luck with Whatever, is their best since Stories Don’t End, it still is not the great record they are clearly capable of making.
The closest comparison to Good Luck is if Brian Hornsby had more rock swagger to him. It’s piano-heavy heartland rock accented by electric and acoustic guitars. The straightforward ’80s reference-points, especially in the structure, are a good fit for Dawes, and it results in a couple of spectacular songs. “Between The Zero And The One” and “Free As We Wanna Be” have a ton of dramatic guitar and piano hits, with a perfectly sold hook on the former and gorgeous harmonies on the latter, and “None of My Business” opens with a breezy twang and tense bass that opens into a soaring chorus.
The repetitive lyrical form of “Still Feel Like A Kid” will turn off some, but it works for an opening song and the bridge of screeching electric guitar, and dazzling pianos and organs, and the final line “I am a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band/ Cause I still feel like a kid” push an otherwise familiar conceit into a highlight. It’s easily the brightest, brashest record Dawes has released; a more straight-forward rock record from them seems all the more promising after these songs.
Good Luck With Whatever is produced by Dave Cobb, who has made a real name for himself over the past few years with The Highwoman, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, to name a few. Sadly, this might be some of his most slap-dash production work to date. It makes sense that Goldsmith is singing in his lower register on “Who Do You Think You’re Talking To,” but the shrill production and compression over his voice and the instrumentation hurt what could have been a great song. “Good Luck With Whatever” has the most obvious electronic elements on that record, but the clipped acoustic strumming and inconsistent background vocals and multitracking are even more egregious. It’s to the point where one could never have predicted Cobb’s name was attached to it.
Even “St. Augustine At Night,” a stripped-down acoustic number that should be easy to nail, suffers from a clippy, sour vocal track that sounds unnatural in a way that Isbell makes seem natural and gorgeous. It’s a shame because outside of the production mishaps, it’s a well-written song about one’s relationship with their hometown that taps into the record’s biggest strength; a sense of lyrical escalation and progression. What starts with little details in their hometown segues into moving away, losing contact with your roots and then a final verse that sums up the tiresome adulthood minutiae of “a series of birthdays, cars and pets/ Just anything to look forward to.”
Dawes’s songs about technology can be tedious, especially on their last record, but “Free As We Wanna Be” does a decent job of moving from initial capitulation to prophetic warnings. And even if the verses are rather simple in listing off what makes Goldsmith feel like a kid on “Still Feel Like A Kid,” it does mix humorous and serious in a balanced manner, and the aforementioned line about being a rock star is a perfect choice to end the final verse. Despite some questionable production, it’s these lyrics, Goldsmith’s dependability and some solid tunes that make Good Luck with Whatever worthwhile and Dawes a true ”rock ‘n’ roll band” band for the first time.