This past winter’s been a bummer, but now, as the black slush in the gutters starts to melt, I yearn for new beginnings. Spring must be just around the corner, right? And of course, nothing makes me feel like spring more than sticking a new CD into my player.
But who’d have thought that a CD with a downer title like You Can’t Win would give me that vernal boost of hope and joy? A CD from a band whose very name, Dolorean, sounds like a synonym for melancholy? Well, stranger things have happened. I am digging this wry, atmospheric album, and I am Not popping it out of the slot.
Warning: this is not a hit-the-highway driving album, or a dance-the-night-away musical adrenaline shot. There is no artificial cheeriness on You Can’t Win. But who wants artificial cheeriness? The more I listen to it, the more I relax into its ambient folk-rock sound, full of shape-shifting melodies and laid-back arrangements.
On first listen, the opening track (also called “You Can’t Win”) took me off guard, with that single phrase chanted like a mantra against a tangle of repeated piano chords and back-up oohs. (The same effect is pulled on the fifth track, “You Don’t Want To Know,” with its repeated phrase echoing dully from afar. I really don’t want to know, I realize.) But the effect is, oddly enough, not at all monotonous or depressing. Face it; you Can't win – whoever said you could? There’s a great deal to be said for lowering your expectations.
Once you’ve accepted that, everything else flows into place and Al James’s sidling melodies begin to assert themselves. There’s the lilting “Heather, Remind Me How This Ends,” or the winsome shuffling waltz “Buffalo Gal,” with its obvious nod to Neil Young. (The Harvest Moon/ Prairie Wind Neil Young, I should add, not the Rockin’ in the Free World Neil Young.) The meandering “Beachcomber Blues” may not sound all that bluesy, but its acoustic ramble tosses off modest instrumental improvisations along the way like driftwood on a deserted out-of-season beach. It’s a moody, reflective groove that feels just fine.
And as the album picks its way along, the tracks get less and less mournful. James even begins to find some sly, self-effacing humor in his situation by the time you get to “In Love With the Doubt” and “What One Bottle Can Do” and “Just Don’t Leave Town.” Self-pity has no place here; no one’s raging against the dying of the light. What a relief.
Al James’ rueful tenor reminds me of Ron Sexsmith or the Jayhawks’ Greg Louris or Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard – and that’s a good thing. Good as his lyrics are, I don’t feel compelled to sit down and pore over them. I’d rather let the whole thing seep slowly into my consciousness… like the run-off from that melting slush outside. I suspect I’ll see a few green shoots poking out of the mud very soon. And until then, I’ll comfort myself with the thought that You Can’t Win.