(Star Time; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 27 April 2004

For me, choosing where to go for college boiled down to the decision between the Beach Boys and Minor Threat (better known as Southern California and Washington, DC). Sure, Tortoise/Califone/Smashing Pumpkins tried to get me to give Chicago some thought, but once the Dismemberment Plan was factored in, not even those angelic melodies and teenage symphonies to God could lure me west. So I now find myself in DC with the Dismemberment Plan and Black Eyes broken up, Fugazi on hiatus, and Dios making me wonder if perhaps LA should delay falling into the ocean for a few more years.

There has always been something beautiful about that unique mix of summer haze and melancholia that, when properly carried out, makes California rock irresistible. Dios not only clearly understand the basic idea, but are able to mix ideas from other genres and increase the disconnect between music and message, further building the alienation inherent in the music. Of course, when a band is so deeply influenced by the Beach Boys, Neil Young, and, to a lesser extent, the Beatles, they are clearly off to a good start.

Right from the opener the album makes it clear that it is not the soundtrack to some "perfect summer." Synthesizers and effects quietly build under the relatively traditional rock “Nobody’s Perfect” that later grows to an impressive finale. As the song builds to a crescendo, lead-singer Joel Morales roars out the perfect break-up song chorus once again: “I can’t be what’s wrong with you/ You can’t hold me liable no more/ It’s my fault I stayed so long with you.” “Starting Five” stands out as the cool, possible single from the album. You can practically hear Morales swaggering through this one backed by a poppy beat and thick bass lines. The lyrics reflect both a rejection of the machismo that some would expect from a Latin American band (Dios are four second-generation Mexican-Americans and one Venezuelan) and a clever commentary on the social situation of Latinos (“Someday soon I’ll reach the moon and bring back shit to sell to NASA and make some cash and buy that classy lifestyle I’ve been told about”).

“The Uncertainty” brings forth two important elements of Dios’s music: Jimmy Cabeza de Vaca’s keyboards and synthesizer and the use of samples of old AM radio and movies. Opening with a quiet wash of noise and piano, the track builds on Morales quiet vocals and then works in samples about “banal, shallow lives” and death. “50 Cents” both lightens the mood and makes bashing these guys over their Beach Boys influence unnecessary. The first section is just acoustic guitar with Morales singing about (once again) the end of a relationship, but then at 2:37 the guitar drops out, Cabeza de Vaca’s keyboards enter with a simple, familiar melody and then suddenly out of left field it’s Morales singing the vocal coda from the Beach Boys “You Still Believe in Me.” At 3:13 the song returns to the vocal/acoustic guitar sound of the first section, but when Morales hits the chorus for the last time the song explodes the way it had clearly been wanting to.

“All is Said and Done” serves as an upbeat love song, but lacks the hooks that made the opening four songs so memorable. “You’ll Get Yours” is the strongest song on the album, starting with just the sound of a TV playing in the background and some backward looped vocals. At 39 seconds in there’s a click and then Morales lets loose over a light guitar and sluggish drumming. The elements start to come together and then at 1:34, where the song should start rocking out, the bottom drops out and we get a disjointed series of handclaps and Cabeza de Vaca’s piano accompanied by Morales’s beautifully delivered lyrics: "Fuck all that shit/ Of staying friends/ I don’t want to see your face no more.”

Unfortunately, Dios aren’t able to maintain their energy and originality throughout the album. The cover of Neil Young’s “Birds” adds little to the After the Gold Rush original. “You Make Me Feel” does stand out, though Morales sounds a bit too close to John Frusciante for comfort. There doesn’t seem to be much behind the understated “Just Another Girl,” and “You Got Me All Wrong” seems a bit too paint-by-numbers. “Meeting People” finds a plaintive Morales at a lyrical high, though he alternates between sounding like Kurt Cobain and Freedy Johnston, and the song lets guitarist (and brother) Kevin Morales get his solos in. The album closes with the rain-drenched, blurry “All My Life” which doesn’t add much to the record.

Overall this debut shows an enormous amount of potential--the Morales brothers and co. clearly know what they’re doing, and, if able to flesh out their sound and bring in new ideas, have all the making of a great band. As is Dios is definitely worth listening to, as there are more than an average number of great tracks, but one still gets the feeling that this is something of a SoCal, underage version of the Wrens' Meadowlands: good indie rock and plenty of heartbreak (while, thankfully, avoiding the fall into emo), but here they just don’t seem to have the age and experience to back it up. Give these guys time and they may well live up to the huge promise of this album.