Dolorean: “The Unfazed”

They call themselves “The Unfazed,” and they say it neither in humor nor in hubris; it’s a simple statement of fact, the way things are, an admission of stone-faced stoicism from a band that remains, above all things, resilient. By all accounts, Al James and his Dolorean crew have been through the wringer, the title of their last album, 2007’s You Can’t Win, turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; it was fine work but absolutely no one paid attention to it– the story of their career, really– and their relationship with their label became a little prickly.

I don’t know if they got religion or simply made peace, but their return to recording, The Unfazed, more than earns its title. It isn’t markedly different form Dolorean albums past. Their trade is still in mid-tempo, folksy country-rock, not dissimilar from early Jayhawks records, or even the albums Joe Henry was making around that same time, like Short Man’s Room or The Kindness of the World. If anything, their music is less concerned with preserving the grit of traditional country music, more interested in James’ beatific melodic gifts– every song here, just about, swells and swoons with something sublime. They’re masters of the slow-burn– not unlike a similarly underrated (and, seemingly, unfazed) band, Over the Rhine— and, as with that band, the initial temptation is to say that their songs are too uniform in tempo to truly stand apart from each other; it’s only after a couple of patient listens that the depth of their craft begins to reveal itself, though it must be said that, despite the tumult they’ve gone through, this is the loosest, most confident, most immediately charming album they’ve ever made. (Unfazed.)

James’ greatest gift, I dare say, is in those wonderfully evocative melodies, the ones that conjure melancholy and catharsis so handily. There’s a song here called “Country Clutter,” written with precision and arranged immaculately, voice and piano and a steadily shaking tambourine driving the thing home, that’s so gorgeous it initially masks how nasty the song’s sentiment is. It’s a kiss-off track that earned it a comparison to Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” from the NPR crowd, and it’s simply wrenching in its truth-telling brutality. I don’t know that I’d call it a sad song, though: James writes not from a place of heartache but of resilience, his narrator finding strength in the face of sadness. It’s a common thread throughout these songs which really feel more like short stories in their precision, their economy, and their sense of mystery– I can imagine them coming from Raymond Carver’s pen with no problem. The narrator in “If I Find Love” may as well be a stand-in for any and all of the characters assembled here– in their best moments, anyway. “If I find love, it’ll be the end of me,” he says, but it doesn’t seem like he plans on giving up the search. He may not possess optimism, but he seems to possess hope– a small but crucial distinction.

I like the guy in the title song, as well. The song finds pleasure in simple things– a jukebox, playing the good ol’ stuff on a Saturday night at the honky tonk– and it does so even when the stakes are high. Here James’ dogged endurance runs up against finality itself: He’s “unfazed by blond hair turning gray,” he says, and if his voice shakes just a bit, in a way that suggests he may not quite believe it, you and he both realize that it’s really not a matter of choice.

My favorite thing here, though– and maybe the song that’s most striking for its short-fiction level of detail and resonance– is the opener, a really lovely tune called “Thinskinned” that employs fiddle, piano, and a comparatively rocking beat in service of an Al James melody that rivals anything here, even “Country Clutter,” and has a lyric that paints, in painful detail, a contentious couple who are just a little too good at getting under each others’ skin. The lyric culminates in a statement that’s almost– perversely– hopeful, like maybe getting under each others’ skin is better than the alternative: “I can’t believe it would be better/ If I was hard as nails, and you were tough as leather.”

This is an album where a lot of the joy comes from the details of the songwriting and the production, which means that not all of this is going to sink in on first listen; what might leave a more immediate impression, actually, are the ones that find the band taking a step or two outside of their wheelhouse: “Black Hills Gold” flirts with dubstep, if you can believe it, and “These Slopes” is a rhythmic, slow-building folk song that takes on a particularly meditative quality– an interesting companion sound to its gospel-influenced lyrics. I find these songs to be appealing detours, not the main attraction, but they’re essential to making this feel like a balanced and vibrant record– the work of a band that is, creatively at any rate, really starting to blow up.

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