Dawes, Stories Don't End. Stealthlike, Dawes has become the new American band possessed by true greatness. The Southern Californians have two previous albums which pointed this way, but on Stories Don't End they've headed off on a striking path to putting their names in the history books and inspiring gererations of music fans for a very long time. Dawes have proved that four players can strike a chord of infamy on songs both large and small, loud and quiet, and in doing so make it seem like anything is still possible in rock and roll. Taylor Goldsmith's originals are like short stories, but ones that have an unforgettable melody and, often, a deep-down sense of despair that never takes him all the way to the bottom. Still, it gets close enough to be breathtaking. Goldsmith's voice gathers so many strong influences from the past that in the end it is nothing but his own. It's like listening to someone on a tightrope, which makes "Just Beneath the Surface," "Most People," "Bear Witness" and all his other originals pinpoint-perfect vignettes of what happens to people moving towards their 30s with a playbook whose print has been smudged and soul-maps creased and torn by modern life.
There isn't anyone else in Dawes' league right now who hits those long shot odds every time with so much power. What puts them in that party of one is the finely-tuned empathy the guitar, bass, keyboards and drums all have. It's like they are one-head musicians, playing without speaking by virtue of their being wired into the same mind. Some songs come across as Japanese brush-stroke paintings, sounding simple but in reality possessing a bottomless wisdom. And there are others that burn, helped in part by Taylor Goldsmith's stinging guitar and brother 22-year-old Griffin Goldsmith's never-erring drumming. If Jim Gordon has a rock-solid successor on skins, this is him. Bassist Wylie Gelber and keyboardist Tay Strathairn complete the foursome, each a key component of a perfect quartet. Dawes is a band for the ages as well as one for today. When that happens, watch out. They are on tour with Bob Dylan right now. Enough said.
Various Artists, Son of Rogues Gallery. When it comes to tribute albums, the buck pretty much starts and stops with Hal Willner. He's had the courage to create them for artists ranging from Thelonious Monk to vintage Disney songs, from Nino Rota to Harold Arlen. The beauty of Willner's vision is he will not be stopped. Case in point is this second volume of what he calls Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. Granted, it's hard to put a clear definition of what those exactly are, except to say you know them when you hear them. The 36 tracks on "Son of Rogues Gallery" are like a scattershot of artists who all find something to celebrate in this roster of reprobates. The double-disc set starts with perennial Pogue Shane MacGowan and ends with Canadian Mary Margaret O'Hara. In between is a community of singers, scoundrels and assorted artist types who find solace in a land of liberty and lawlessness.
No normal person would attempt such an endeavor, but then again don't forget Willner has produced albums by William Burroughs and Marianne Faithfull, among many, and done a damn fine job of it too. He is also the king of pairings. Consider some of those here: Courtney Love and Michael Stipe, Tom Waits and Keith Richards, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp and Iggy Pop with a Hawk and a Hacksaw. That's right, and that's just for starters. What amazes is how something that could easily land on the overwhelming side instead stays infinitely interesting. A lot of that credit should go to Willner for steering this ship away from the rocks, because just when it starts to feel all too much a sterling gem emerges from the mist and sunshine breaks on the horizon. Can Son of Son of Rogues Gallery be far behind? Ship ahoy.
Steve Forbert, Alive on Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim. The appearance of Meridian, Mississippi's favorite son Steve Forbert on the New York rock scene in the mid-'70s was like an irresistible apparition. Standing alone in the CBGB crowd of the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith and all the others, Forbert was a man with a Martin guitar who might not have known how things work, which was probably in his favor, but remained fearless in getting the music heard. By the time of his debut album, Alive on Arrival, the songs had began to make noise all around Manhattan and the young man seemed absolutely destined for success. Steve Forbert's second album, Jackrabbit Slim, brought just that with the mega-hit "Romeo's Tune" and other gems. And then it seemed to end. Suddenly.
The best news, though, is the singer-songwriter has continued to record emotionally charged classics all these years, right up to today. Having his first two releases put together and reissued is a very fine way to celebrate spring (and summer, winter and fall for that matter), and remind everyone what musical majesty sounds like. Forbert's voice has a permanent wide-eyed wonder to it, something that is no doubt born in a small town but also remains there through the grit and grime of both big cities and the music business itself. There are songs that feel as fresh today as when they were first written, and bring back the crashing wave of newness that was the second half of the '70s in America's nightclubs and recording studios. As new wave and punk colored the country, Steve Forbert, Little Stevie Orbit to some, stood out like a lit-up beacon among the messy masses and made it seem like the world was opening up to what one Mississippi man and a satchel full of songs could do. For a second, the South did it again.