You Can't Win

(Yep Roc; 2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 23 February 2007

Why does the word “chthonic” sound more mechanical than appropriate, more a meticulous construction--Futurama’s Robot Hell--than an implication of earthly nethers? I won’t attempt an answer if you won’t, and together we can take Dolorean’s Americana with a grain of our own “chthonic” connotation implied instead of defined: a) because lead singer and songwriter Al James must stress the spontaneity of his new record by alluding to Neil Young’s past penchant for booking shows to play with Crazy Horse without giving the band much of an idea about new songs, the Portland saddy ultimately b) betrays how rudimentary and precise many of his ballads end up sounding. If anything, Americana--of which You Can’t Win is decidedly a part, equal measures folk, cursory blues, roots rock, and shoreless surf--concerns itself with anaphora (“I drink one bottle of wine each night / To help me get over you”) and, then, bathos (Grails guitarist Emil Amos’ electric guitar solo at the frayed ends of “Beachcomber Blues”), bedding every lyrical snippet or basic chord progression with a sometimes forced proportion of devastation and bloated release. All the necessary ingredients are intact for Dolorean, including a headspace James describes as initially a “dark place,” a punny band name worth mentioning with furrowed brow, and a swarm of talented musicians comfortable enough with each other and their respective genres to play off-the-cuff almost-jams. Why then does You Can’t Win feel so calculated, and, by extension, slightly sterile?

Since we’re talking connotation anyway, You Can’t Win is undoubtedly a pleasant record, sunny in its light touches and moody when reality sets in. So, “Beachcomber”’s dappling synths or the shambling, mandolin-like choral backdrop of “Heather Remind Me How This Ends” beset the relative weight of a shoegazer tease like the title track, but such a balance isn’t really required when the skill, and essentially, the reality of Dolorean’s loose compositions are in the minutiae. Perhaps Al James has just internalized his influences and his handy allusions into sharp instinct, or perhaps James is too busy idolizing the same ilk to beat out anything originally, confessionally haphazard. He wants to sound like Bill Fay, but Al James can only come to a saccharine, learned pain in his voice. He wants a Palace Brothers sparseness, an Oldham specter, but he can’t recreate an already accidental gothic. And so, Dolorean runs straight down the middle, beating well-known trails and studying his muses like a cartographer.

Whatever the truth -- subjective as it probably is -- the most evocative moments, the most haunting, expansive, primordial incantations, are also the most brief and the least characteristic of the eleven, falling somewhere between Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2001) and a reel-to-reel Damien Jurado EP cut. Monolithic power points of hollowed-out drums stomp over “You Can’t Win’s” sweet underbelly, and James works up the courage to start a titular chant. In the mushy place between extremes, in the gentle lullaby this song works up and in the stabs at poeticism it inspires, James lays bare the best melody of the whole release: “You can’t win,” only two notes, I believe: one held, stepped up note between two diminutive lows, a stupidly simple conceit if I’ve ever made one (I’ve made many). “You Don’t Want To Know” bears similar decompressed deprecation, but doesn’t stumble over its own melodrama, as much of the words do elsewhere on the album. James sings, “If it’s too late out and I’m not at home / You don’t want to know.” Where he is? Or is that the truth behind how “You” feel? How “You” don’t care? The song succeeds -- distant production handled mercifully by Rob Oberdorfer--in channeling a mood as resilient as it is pliable. Which means it has mystery.

Otherwise, the bulk of You Can’t Win can be summed up in “Buffalo Gal”’s formula, a logarithm whose base is a brush drumstick and whose exponent is a dewy guitar shart. The blankly southern, imminently singlable ballads that pepper this sepia collection offer little of the space that, I think, James intends. Instead, the listener is relegated to whitewashed despair; from point a) to point b). Yep, it’s chthonic stuff, but I’d rather not see “You” in Hell.