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You Can't Win

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Album Review

You Can't Win is a slow drive through the kind of America that feels as wrung out and worn through as a pair of old sneakers. It's the kind of terrain traversed by other introspective, rustic, youngish men like Jeff Tweedy, Joe Purdy, and (to an extent) Will Oldham — the kind of place you go if you're looking for empty stretches of pavement and hulking, rusted-out factories moldering in the tall grass. Dolorean's lead singer and songwriter, Al James, is interested in stories about men on the outskirts; You Can't Win, to put it in the words of writer James Salter, concerns itself with "a breed of aimless wanderers" who "have an infuriating power, that of condemned men. They can talk to anybody; they can speak the truth." James is interested in giving voice to this truth, and it sure does yield some sad songs. While James plods over some clichéd subjects on this album (women and booze chief among them), he at least has a knack for story. "Beachcomber Blues" and "My Still Life" tread the usual territory of busted hearts and broken dreams, but James manages to flesh out these old ideas in some surprising ways; the beachcomber becomes a symbol for the directionless wanderer, and the arid Californian landscape is riddled with images of an ex-lover. Granted, there's a lot of drowsy, dull-hearted shambling going on here, and it's a little depressing to come up against a wall of relentless melancholy such as this. But even if this trip is a tad on the soporific side, Dolorean still manages to travel through some beautiful country.

Customer Reviews

Beautiful music from the Pacific Northwest

Following on from the two beautiful albums "Not Exotic" and "Violence In The Snowy Fields", Dolorean's "You Can't Win" has a lot to live up to. Al James, the band's leader and songwriter, rises to the challenge and produces their best, most accessible and most consistent work to date. From the start, it's clear that the band were willing to take some chances and further develop their sound (an alt:country/folk/pop blend) while still retaining the qualities that Dolorean fans have come to admire. Throughout this album of 11 new songs, the band are augmented by the fine, edgy and bluesy guitar work of Emil Amos ( from the band Holy Sons) Also noticeable on the album is the increased focus on harmony work on a number of tracks (often achieved through multi-tracking), very strong melodies throughout and experimentation with different instruments to produce some beautifully layered tracks and a much fuller sound. Lyrically, the album seems a little simpler and more direct than their previous work although Al still chooses his words very precisely - there's nothing sloppy here - everything seems very well considered. The opening title track demonstrates the fresh approach very well. For the usually poetic Mr James to write a lyric with just 3 words and then have it as the lead off track is a brave move but one that works very well, creating a kind of overture for the rest of the album The track starts with a percussive beat and an arresting bass and keyboard pattern repeats and develops. The title is repeated many times over the building track, with some fine harmonies, resulting in a very hypnotic and unusual track. Next up is the piano driven (and slightly R.E.M. like) "We Winter Wrens". A beautiful melody sung over piano chords to begin with before other instruments such as banjo, drums and electric guitar enter the picture. One of the best tracks on the album and perfect listening for a bleak cold winters day. "Heather Remind Me How This Ends" is perhaps more familiar Dolorean fare, with a mandolin featuring in the instrumental break. "Beachcomber Blues" is possibly the standout track of the album. Starting with Al singing alone in his plaintive voice to a strummed guitar, this strong melodic track develops with a wonderful layered backing comprising harpsichord, organ and Emil's breathtaking bluesy guitar work. Add in some gorgeous harmonies and a great lyric about restlessness and the six and a half minute song easily becomes one of the best tracks in the whole Dolorean catalogue. "You Don't Want to Know" is a short echoey snippet of a song, sounding as if it's just drifted in from some other place- the percussion and drums towards the end of the track seeming to suggest distant thunder - an ominous ending to a mysterious song: "if it's too late out and I'm not at home.......You don't want to know"........ "Buffalo Girl" -is a slower track with a very atmospheric backing of brushed drums, simple acoustic guitar, Emil's electric guitar interjections and some minimalist piano parts courtesy of Jay Clarke. "In Love With The Doubt" is another strong melodic track, with a clever lyric which also features a piano and guitar duet in the instrumental breaks. "What one Bottle can do" is a surprisingly cheerful tune considering the lyric "I drink one bottle of wine each night to get over you". 33-53.9° N,118-38.8° W is a wordless tribute to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who was developing into an important solo artist before he died ("Google" the co-ordinates to discover their significance!). This is a moody evocative track with particularly excellent harmony work. "Just Don't Leave Town" starts eerily with a processed vocal but soon develops into a more conventional mid tempo track. My Still Life follows the Dolorean tradition of ending their albums on a quiet note (See also "Spoil Your Dawn" which ends "Not Exotic" and "In The Fall" which brings "Violence in the Snowy Fields" to its conclusion). A simple piano and guitar arrangement with some gentle percussion accompany this slow song about the difficulties of relationships: "Because, you know, the hardest thing to do, is dance in time to each others shoes" - there are some final distant harmonies and the album comes to a gentle end. Dolorean display a new quiet confidence on this fine album and I hope it will bring them a wider audience. They really deserve to be heard.


Formed: 1999 in Portland, OR

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '00s

Dolorean emerged from sleepy Silverton, OR, in 1999, after guitarist/vocalist Al James invited Standard keyboard enthusiast Jay Clarke to play on a slew of his quiet, avant folk home recordings. Sudden Oak, the duo's debut EP, appeared that same year, and Dolorean began playing out. By 2001, they had resettled in Portland and were a fixture on the local literati scene, accompanying poetry readings and the like with their understated sound. By this point, drummer Ben Nugent had also joined the fold....
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You Can't Win, Dolorean
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