Dolly Varden

Thrill of Gravity

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On their second outing, Chicago's Dolly Varden opens the raw edges on their country-rock sound (and I stress rock) without letting any of their glorious, darkly textured sadness leave their collective heart. The set opens with "California Zephyr," a Rolling Stones-ish countrified jaunt along the precipice where raw, stinging electric guitars entwine with a B3. Stephen Dawson and Diane Christensen's harmonies are tighter than on Mouthful of Lies and dig deeper into the Gram/Emmylou bag, but rock far harder and make no attempt to disguise their emotion underneath the gravity of the song. The same is true on "First Class Blackout," which would have made an awesome B-side to the opener. This track, which has a feel in the seam between the Stones and Uncle Tupelo's finer moments, tells a dark story of excess which may or may not be redeemed. These are both winners, but they only hint at what is to come with Diane Christensen's "Lucky 23," a lilting ballad that is exquisitely textured for maximum emotional effect: disintegration in slow motion. Ms. Christensen is a painter, and the manner in which the songs she sings are produced reveals layers of surface, meaning, and texture in the song's prone body. There's a split somewhere in the lyrics -- which I'll not reveal here -- and in that split, entire worlds of backtracked guitars, droning keyboards, drifting ambience, and noise are all wafting around yet harnessed by Dolly Varden's restraint around her. The tune creates a tension that is only dispelled by Dawson's vocal on "The Old in and Out," another ballad of stark construction, desolate and resigned emotion, and subtly shifting timbres in the melody. It's the other side of Ms. Christensen's dream, only in black and white instead of color. Track after track the maze creates itself, moving into ever more experimental territory that never meanders out of the blurry boundaries that constitute song. The country songs like "I Can't Wait Anymore" sound like the Everlys touched by the angel of Doug Sahm, while "Dangerously Thin" and "All I Deserve" skirt the edges of formalism and hover above the ground with tears falling. This is another step forward for an already very fine band. With a killer sleeve by Ms. Christensen to boot, it's a heck of a package and one of the more compelling records to blend original musical inspiration with nearly peerless lyrical imagination in a long, long time.

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