Dolorean – The Unfazed
3.9 out of 5
Not to be confused with Spanish electro-pop band “Delorean”, or the infamous stainless steel paneled car of “Back To The Future” fame, Dolorean takes its name from “dolorous”, an adjective meaning grievous, or to cause pain. Considering the Portland, Oregon-based band craft songs of aching, introspective Americana in the vein of Joe Purdy and Richard Buckner, the name is rather apt. Over the last decade, Dolorean have quietly put together a respectable discography that culminated in 2007’s stellar You Can’t Win. Despite widespread critical acclaim and a lengthy European and North American tour, it failed to create the sort of commercial buzz the band (and, more notably, its label) hoped for. Rather than pack it in for good, the band went on a three-year hiatus, and parted ways with their former label before returning, with their fourth full-length album, The Unfazed. Despite lacking the raw, live approach of You Can’t Win, The Unfazed is a rewarding, more sonically diverse record than its predecessor.
Dolorean’s greatest strength remains singer/guitarist and principal songwriter, Al James. A poet in his pre-Dolorean life, James’ clean, almost whispered vocals are well matched for the band’s musical arrangements. Yet his greatest strength is his uncanny ability to combine understated yet striking melodies with impeccable lyricism. It’s this distinction that helps The Unfazed rise above typical folk/alt. country fare. Although there’s nothing particularly novel about a record recounting a relationship gone sour, James drops lines that go well beyond your run of the mill “you done me wrong”. Take the second track, “Country Clutter”, for example. The near syrupy melody and backing vocals, courtesy of Mara Lee Miller of Bosque Brown, are cut with lyrics that are anything but remorseful: “If you find anything I left behind, well you can have it. Let it clutter up your life, the way you cluttered up mine.” Even Robert Johnson rarely sounded so pissed off. And therein lies The Unfazed’s inherently contradictory sound. Although the music is wistful and the arrangements are rich, James’ lyrics feel like a sucker punch to the kidneys.
The Unfazed is a decidedly different beast to that of You Can’t Win. Though lacking the rawness found on the latter, (a by-product of its near live recording style), The Unfazed’s cleaner production has resulted in sharper arrangements. On the moody “Black Hills Gold”, the mid-tempo number is complemented with organ flourishes, fantastic drumming and some stellar electric guitar work. The same can be said for “Hard Working Dogs” where backing vocals, piano and fiddle perfectly flesh-out the mix: “Give-up this touch-up job” sings James, “there’s no way to make it pretty.” “Fools Gold Ring” contains some distressing observations on a broken relationship: “It’s just a fools coin toss”, says James. Things don’t get much better by the chorus. Juxtaposed with a dazzling pedal steel guitar line, James explains: “Even fools have needs” and “It’s just a fools gold ring.” The track is one of the more devastating moments on the record, both in its beauty and its lyrical directness.
It’s that aforementioned lyrical directness that makes The Unfazed such a pleasure to revisit. In the liner notes for You Can’t Win, James commented that the title’s philosophy had become something of a rallying cry for the band. It appears as if Dolorean have stuck with a similarly cathartic approach here. Though they may never attain the level of commercial success of some of their contemporaries, they’ve perfected a sound uniquely their own. If the worst thing that Dolorean does is to continue to churn out records as sublime as The Unfazed, I have a hunch they’ll be just fine.
- Ewan Christie