“I believe in second chances for everyone but you”
Whoa. I thought everyone in Portland was really mellow! Apparently not so for Alex James, Portland, Oregon native and resident. His debut album under the name Dolorean, Not Exotic, was a dark and quiet thunderstorm of emotion and pain. What does this year have in store for Mr. James? Well, it still isn’t candy canes and rainbows. What we have is Dolorean’s Violence in the Snowy Fields, a gloomy work from an extremely talented singer / songwriter.
Like Sam Beam’s progression from his two acoustic releases to a fuller and more produced sound, so is Dolorean’s. Half of the album is complemented by Alex James’ band (thus giving them a band’s name), Jay Clarke on keyboards, James Adair on bass and Ben Nugent on drums. The band contributes mostly on the more upbeat tracks, giving them an alt-country feel and sound, while the quieter `solo’ numbers are pure Alex James, confessional, emotional, and heartbroken.
The album’s title is taken from a book of poems by Robert Bly entitled Silence in the Snowy Fields. James is a student of poetry and literature, taking cues from what he reads and making his lyrics poetry itself. Take some lyrics from the opening track, “The Search”:
Surely there is a mine for silver and
a place where they refine gold
Iron is taken from the hills and
Copper’s taken from the ground
So where is the place of understanding
And where can wisdom be found?
The music behind it is a twangy guitar composition not unlike songs found in The Band’s Music from the Big Pink, Beulah’s Yoko or Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne. If those seem like lofty comparisons and expectations, Dolorean meets them handily.
The rest of the album goes back and forth between styles and moods, but mostly they evoke feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. The second track, a string-tinged acoustic number called “Put You to Sleep” sounds more like an outtake from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska than anything, even though I’m sure comparisons to Wilco will abound in reviews of this record. This is the American music that Alex James captures, Springsteen’s America, the one with darkness, heartbreak, and sadness. The song is a lullaby to a lover having bad dreams, but has much darker undertones of a past lover’s wrongs. There is some hint of hopefulness in a divine power, but it seems distant.
“Dying in Time” is a wonderful song about wanting to die at the same time as his lover. “If you pass on, I don’t want to be alive / So baby let’s die at the same time.” The music sounds like something from Dios which makes sense considering James is influenced by Dennis Wilson. Other artists’ echoes can be heard throughout the album as well, including most heavily, Neil Young. Being a dark singer / songwriter album with a folk bent, there are also similarities to Bonnie Prince Billy’s I See a Darkness.
The title track recalls Grateful Dead a little bit, and again the Band, with its chorus of “And in the end St. John says, ‘All Things Shall Be Revealed’ like violence, like violence, like violence in the snow fields.” You can almost sing “Take a load off Annie, take a load for free” along with the music. The quote at the top of the review is from a track entitled “My Grey Life (Second Chances).” The song, as you can tell, is quite brutal. This is a truly bitter man singing this song. Fans of Elliott Smith, Damien Rice, and Iron & Wine take note! This will be one of your new favorites. With the strains of a cello in the background there are definite Damien Rice comparisons to be made, especially his slow burners like “The Blower’s Daughter.”
“The Righteous Shall Destroy the Precious” is a standout track, and one of my favorites, that builds up as it goes along. In that respect I found it much like Will Oldham’s “Death to Everyone,” Weezer’s “Only in Dreams,” or Death Cab for Cutie’s “Styrofoam Plates.” The strength and depth of the emotions in this song are palpable, as if Alex James were playing the song only for you. When he intones along with backup vocals, “Your voice, your king that once was your slave,” you get a little bit of a chill as you wait for the crescendo to build. It never quite gets overblown, and in a way is what the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” could have and should have been.
The album ends with “In the Fall,” another lullaby-like song in which an unrequited love is pleaded with. He sings, “If you are with him / If you are with him in the summertime / You better love me in the fall / You should let me know if you love me at all.” James plays the acoustic guitar with no accompaniment (save for the occasional keyboard) which makes the song all the more stark, bare, and hopeless. With their second album release, Alex James and Dolorean not only avoid the sophomore slump, they absolutely pulverize it. Violence in the Snowy Fields is a timeless album that does what good folk-rock music is supposed to do, evoke deep seated emotion.