Dolly Varden – Beyond 9 to 5
Several years back, Steve Dawson joined the swollen ranks of songwriters in Nashville under contract to pen songs — hit songs, mister — for established country singers. Having blended styles in Stump the Host, a twangy Chicago band that built up a strong local following before folding in 1993, he took his best shot at generic purity.
He did so, initially, by shelving his natural inclination to work from instinct and worry about shaping the songs later. Frustrated by the results, he went back to his room one day and, like a baseball pitcher tossing mechanics out the window and just rearing back and firing, wrote “the most absolutely, abysmally, depressing country song” he could.
“All I Deserve”, which contains a New Year’s resolution to “try drinking until I can hardly see,” didn’t make any Nashville cats purr, either. But as sung by Dawson’s wife and former Stump-mate Diane Christiansen on The Thrill Of Gravity, the standout second album by their new band Dolly Varden, the tune is compellingly reborn via its gender switch and Christiansen’s weary, Margo Timmins-like delivery.
“It sounds even more depressing with Diane singing,” said Dawson, approvingly. Christiansen, who worried about the group’s homemade 1995 debut, Mouthful Of Lies, being too moody, worries no more. A painter who specializes in surreal, cartoonlike imagery (as exhibited on the band’s CD booklets), she is in her element touring the dark side of her dreams in song. (Sunflowers will never seem quite the same after you hear her fever-streaked “Sunflower Drag”.)
Dolly Varden can roots-rock with the best of them, while reflecting the smartest sense of popcraft. But fired and quieted by complex emotion, not to mention animated guitars — acoustic, electric, lap steel, psychedelic — the songs never settle into easy solutions.
Take “California Zephyr”, the Gram Parsons-esque tune that opens The Thrill Of Gravity. Lifted by the couple’s full-bodied vocal harmonies, it’s as breezy as the famous train of its title. But inspired long after the fact by Dawson’s trip to Idaho to introduce Christiansen to his father, it can’t outrace a case of nerves.
“I thought the train wasn’t gonna stop,” said Dawson, who pays homage in the song to Hank Williams’ record of the same name. “I was going to such a tiny town, I wondered how they would know it even existed.”
A mood swing removed from the upright intensity he pours into his songs, Dawson is clean-cut, soft-spoken, obliging, a tad hesitant. Christiansen is extroverted, and, wired to dual careers, imparts a brittle charm. But as co-writers — he’s mainly a music man, she’s mainly a word woman — they share fully in the edgy vision of Dolly Varden (which, with a certain buxom singer on the far side of meaning, was named after an iridescent trout).
It’s for others to determine whether or not they were too edgy for the major labels that kept them on a string of broken promises — just as Stump the Host had been, leading Dawson and Christiansen to drown their then-unfashionable country leanings for a spell in a heavy, PJ Harvey-inspired guitar sound. Suffice it to say that after reality knocked for the band — which also includes guitarist Mark Balletto, bassist Mike Bradburn drummer Matt Thobe — their resolve was tested.
Having begun recording The Thrill Of Gravity last fall, in a coach house containing Christiansen’s art studio. they decided to complete it and put it out independently, as they had done with Mouthful Of Lies. Christiansen distanced herself from the record company shenanigans; “either that or I would have gone nuts,” she said. For Dawson, the difficulties lent “an unsettling quality” to the music.
The matter was happily settled when Stefanie Scamardo, head of a fledgling New York indie called Evil Teen, expressed interest in the new album. Assured of complete creative control, the band cottoned to her offer to release the album — particularly since Evil Teen’s backing allowed for a studio upgrade from four to 16 tracks and the participation of producer Bundy K. Brown, known for his work with arty instrumental rockers Tortoise and New York indie rockers Yo La Tengo.
Dawson, a studio maven who during the making of Mouthful Of Lies had studied photos in a book about the Beatles to determine where they placed the mikes in recording Rubber Soul, found himself experimenting with backward guitar parts at four in the morning — tired but happy.
“He woke me to play one he was especially proud of,” said Christiansen, who, in the classic tradition of loving spouses, said, “That’s nice, honey,” and went back to sleep. There is Gravity, and then there is gravity.