There I was, sitting in an office and staring at a framed piece of motivational prose. I’m not usually the type of guy who is affected by pithy sayings, self help books or philosophical ramblings, but I found myself transfixed by this statement. It doesn’t really matter that the quotation came from Gertrude Stein, nemesis of Hemingway, one of my favorite writers, essentially denoting that the quotation was being used as a piece of feminist lesbian empowerment. No, that didn’t matter. It said this, “It is simple…We are where we should be, doing what we should be doing. Otherwise we’d be somewhere else, doing something else.” This is a fairly late review. It’s late for a lot of reasons, most of them personal. But it’s also late because I just couldn’t get into a place where I was ready to really listen to Al James’ music. I was and am a big fan of Violence in the Snowy Fields, Dolorean’s second full-length effort. So, I was expecting a lot from You Can’t Win.
The first few times of trying to force myself to listen to it were unsuccessful. I tried listening to it in the car, at work on my lunch break and at home just chilling out. Nothing worked. It turns out that the title of the album was trying to tell me something. Yet, the day I found myself transfixed by a simple quotation was the day that I was finally able to reach a breakthrough with the album. I walked down to Lake Union and watched the water ripple with the wind. I watched sailboats drifting by and kayaks being rowed. Kites were flying around Gas Works Park and I sat and took it all in. I was where I should have been, doing what I should have been doing, reconnecting with Al James. It was as if I was hearing him for the first time, and I was just as stunned as the real first time. Call me Madonna.
You Can’t Win says it all. This is a collection of songs that quite simply revolves around sadness. Whereas Violence in the Snowy Fields balanced the more morose tracks with more upbeat folksy romps, You Can’t Win sets up camp in the dark recesses of the heartbroken soul and never really leaves. The opening title track is evidence of that, with just a building organ and steady drumbeat and the same three repeated words. “We Winter Wrens” finds James sounding more like Ben Folds after a dose of halcyon. A tinny banjo helps play counterpoint to the piano nicely, and at times you feel the song might reach a sonic apex, but James always pulls it back just in time. “Heather Remind Me How This Ends” is one of Dolorean’s saddest songs with James singing, “Send money every Friday, on that you can depend / Heather remind me how this ends.”
It was “Beachcomber Blues” that played as I sat staring at the water, which is what in turn reminded me of the quotation. How appropriate was it that I was there, on the shore, in a similar funk brought on by various aspects of love and love lost, listening to Al James sing about these issues? I decided not to question it, and instead, as Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn urged, I decided to `be still and know.’ I knew where I was, who I was, and what this music was helping me to feel. Just as I’m not one for philosophies, I’m not really one for epiphanies, but this was as close to one as I suppose I’m ever going to get. “Buffalo Gal” is another highlight, twisting the lyrics of the song famously used in the film It’s a Wonderful Life into “Buffalo Gal don’t you go out tonight / I’ll do my best to keep you inside / Away from the rest, the looks that you get from the boys who are passing you by.” “In Love with the Doubt,” “What One Bottle Can Do” and “Just Down Leave Town” are also worthy songs, but true magic occurs on “33-53.9 N / 118-38.8 W,” an instrumental track with “ooh’s” of vocal harmony. The title refers to the final resting place of Dennis Wilson, and the song is a fitting tribute to the man.
I needed to be in the right place and right frame of mind to appreciate this album, and my warning to you is that you might need to be as well. But then again, you can’t just listen to the Decemberists and TV on the Radio all day, at some point you’re going to feel a little down in the dumps, and that’s where Al James is waiting for you, ready to let you know that you’re not alone. When things look their darkest, when that bottle of wine just isn’t enough to make you forget her (or him), you have a friend in Dolorean.