What a rough time this must be for Dolorean. Anyone who catches wind of one of their simple folk-rock tunes and wishes to investigate further will likely see the phrase “Did You Mean ‘Delorean?’” staring back at them from their computer screen. The Portland-based band has spent the better part of the decade quietly grinding out unassuming Americana and occasionally acting as Damien Jurado’s backing band, only to have their name all but usurped by a buzz band that come bearing danceable, sunshiny hooks. I’ll even confess to confusing the two when Stereo Subversion’s Editor put out a list of potential albums to review. The other writers here jump on the good shit fast. No time to check if I’m accepting an album by the wrong band.
And boy is there a sonic gulf between the bands; they may as well occupy entirely different universes. Delorean makes me want to jump in a pool. Dolorean makes me want to hide in my living room from the unrelenting grey winter skies while my nails and facial hair grow to Howard Hughes lengths. But I suppose it’s silly to continue to compare two bands that are connected merely by their homophonic names. Moving on…
Dolorean’s latest record, The Unfazed, displays a severely limited musical palette. It’s certainly warm, and Dolorean are unquestionably well versed in the structural components and thematic tropes that make up most conventional folk-rock, but the latter point is part of the problem. Track to track, the arrangements are identical, safe and bland — comprised of piano, bass, guitar and drums all following the melody generically, as though the instrumentalists fear standing out even momentarily. Frontman Al James rarely ventures into any distinctive lyrical territory, relying on such well-worn Americana topics as heartbreak (“Country Clutter”) and personal cowardice (“Hard Working Dogs”). Even the song titles sound like formulaic folk imagery (“Fools Gold Ring”, “Black Hills Gold”, “These Slopes”).
Though, to be fair, James often shows himself to be in possession of a reasonably deft poetic ear, even if the subject matter rings as overly familiar (“I can’t believe it would be better/ If I were hard as nails and you were tough as leather” goes a typically above average couplet from “Thinskinned”). Yet James passable lyricism combined with his thoroughly regular voice doesn’t really add up to much. Throw in the band’s excessively respectful approach to instrumentalism, and it’s no wonder that the resulting record fails to distinguish itself. Dolorean attempt the occasional big moment (such as the reasonably charged instrumental passages that lead in to the choruses of “Hard Working Dogs”), but these moments only stand out on repeat listens, once you’ve realized that these are the only exciting moments to which the listener can cling. The Unfazed is unwaveringly downcast and timidly pretty, and maybe that’s all Dolorean were aiming for, but it’s difficult to pat them on the back for pulling off such a safe aesthetic.