It’s been nearly a decade since Dawes first emerged from Southern California, carrying with them a roots-rock sound that nodded to the past – including the West Coast folksingers and cosmic country-rockers who chased a similar muse during the 1970s – while still pushing forward. Over the years that followed their North Hills debut, the band evolved and electrified. The grooves deepened. The amplifiers grew louder. Once known for their honest approach to classic sounds, Dawes grew into something different: a forward-thinking, boundary-pushing band for the 21st century, willing to follow inspiration wherever it leads.
On the group’s sixth album, Passwords, that inspiration pulls guitarist/singer Taylor Goldsmith, drummer Griffin Goldsmith, bassist Wylie Gelber, and keyboardist Lee Pardini into their most universal, topical territory to date. This is a record about the modern world: the relationships that fill it, the politics that divide it, the small victories and big losses that give it shape. Taylor’s writing is personal at points – the result of his recent engagement, which lends a sense of gravity and self-reflection to album highlights like “Time Flies Either Way” and “I Can’t Love” – but it also zooms out, focusing not on the director himself, but on everything within the lens.
“When I wrote ‘Most People,’ I was trying to get into this headspace of writing about someone else,” he says, name-checking the band’s Triple A radio hit from 2013’s Sto-ries Don’t End. “I didn’t want to grow into the kind of songwriter who only talks about himself, especially when we’re living in such a unique moment in history. Many of these songs are an attempt to come to terms with the modern world, while always trying to consider both sides of the story.”
“At the same time,” he adds. “I’m also writing about the shifts in my own life, including getting married. Together, the songs process some dark moments – paranoia, anxiety, the wreckage of what you might’ve done in the past – and arrive at some sort of hope-ful resolution. I’m hoping it’s our first step into adulthood as a band.”
“Band” is the operative word here. This is the work of a group of road warriors who’ve carved out their blend of amplified folk-rock, bound together by blood (Taylor and Grif-fin are brothers, raised in the same Malibu home by musical parents) and a nine-year rise from the clubs of Los Angeles to theaters on both sides of the Atlantic. Their playing is nuanced and collaborative, with no single instrument dominating the track list. It’s no surprise, then, that other artists have chosen to collaborated with Dawes both onstage and in the studio, from Jim James to the Killers. It’s also no surprise that these songs, although largely written alone by Taylor (with co-writer Jason Boesel contributing to three tracks), shine a light on Dawes’ full lineup.
Like a highlights reel of the albums that preceded it, Passwords bounces between gui-tar-driven indie rock (the anthem, atmospheric “Living In The Future”); slick grooves (“Feed the Fire”); blue-eyed SoCal soul (“My Greatest Invention”); and modern folk (“I Can’t Love,” “Stay Down”). At the same time, the album also embraces a spacier, experimental approach. Playing a key role in that sound is keyboardist Pardini – the band’s newest member, having joined the roster not long after the release of 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands – whose analog keyboards push the band far beyond their Americana origins.
“Lee can make amazing sounds out of any instrument,” Taylor enthuses. “He could pull a great tone out of a shoe. Even on a song like ‘Stay Down,’ which is largely acoustic-based and organic, he found a keyboard sound that had a futuristic, mariachi, post-apocalyptic feel.” Also catapulting the bandmates into new territory is producer Jonathan Wilson, a long-time friend who produced the band’s first two albums. Years before Dawes toured the globe with artists like Kings of Leon, ELO, Bob Dylan, Mumford & Sons, Conor Oberst, and Jackson Browne, they recorded their first songs in Wilson’s studio, developing their sound along the way. Passwords marks their reunion.
“Part of the DNA of Dawes was shaped by Jonathan, much like your first serious girl-friend dictates how you approach relationships for the rest of your life,” Taylor says. “Those first two Dawes records have a certain essence to them. We were figuring out who we were. When it came time to produce our sixth album, why not go back to the guy who started it all with us?”
The band spent three and a half weeks in the studio, focusing on full-band performances that were tracked live – including Taylor’s vocal takes – rather than multiple rounds of overdubs. The result is a warm, lived-in album that spotlights Dawes’ strength as a live act. At its heart, though, Passwords is also a record rooted in craft and consideration. From “Living In The Future,” which encourages its listener to serve as a bright light during darker times, to “Crack the Case,” a timely call for patience and empathy in an age of political partisanship, Passwords uses its words wisely, unfolding with well-reasoned articulation and pointed punch. Rarely has Dawes created such an appropriate soundtrack for the modern age.
“Passwords comes from a line in ‘Living In The Future’: ‘It’s the battle of the pass-words,'” Taylor points out. “So there is a slight political implication – the idea that something so seemingly innocuous and frivolous can potentially shift the direction of a life or even a country. But more broadly than that, a password – this series of numbers, letters and figures – serves as a thin veil between a world you can see and understand, and one you can’t. That means songs can be passwords, too, because they’re a means of giving access to someone else’s perspective, thereby elaborating your own. Songs can unlock something in you, change something, tighten something, enlighten some-thing, or gain access into deeper corners, and that idea makes referring to a collection of songs as Passwords feel really good.”