It's comforting to know that it's always darkest before the dawn. Just when you think you've had your fill of all the ridiculous alt-country/roots-shtick outfits -- the ones run by loser ex-punks whose options, like their tattoos, are slowly fading so they figure that by subbing twang for fuzztone and singing about trucks instead of strippers they can earn a second bar tab -- along comes a handful of bands that so instinctively get things right that all the wrongs vanish with the rising sun.
The Continental Drifters absolutely slayed lucky South by Southwest attendees this past March with a transcendent, two-hour-plus set; the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers (a.k.a. Victoria Williams and ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson) recently issued a tour de force of a new album, Someone to Talk With; and Chicago's Dolly Varden just turned up with its third full-length, which, by about any kind of reckoning, is as perfect as it comes.
In the space of a mere dozen numbers, this Brad Jones-produced song cycle encompasses the entirety of the musical and the human spirit. From the buoyant, Wilco-meets-Crowded House power pop of "I Come to You" and the serenely downcast, Gram Parsons-like "Simple Pleasure" to the autumnal acoustic musings of "Apple Doll" (nicely flavored with glockenspiel and marimba) and the title song's lush country anthemism (string section courtesy of a Mellotron, and that's the sweetest, twangiest guitar solo you'll hear all year), The Dumbest Magnets is simply aglow with a rare melodic grandness. Its songs perform the amazing feat of not only hooking you at first listen but retaining their appeal after the 10th or 20th.
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And for those who find solace in others' attempts to make sense of the hows and whys of love, loss and connections, the album's like an old chum whose shoulder is always there to lay your head on. In "The Dumbest Magnets," Stephen Dawson attempts to make sense of why it is that the shit we go through turns into the ties that bind: "We've scraped the bottom of the block together/Confusing tears won't stain our eyes forever." Similarly, in "Progress Note," Diane Christiansen suggests a straightforward remedy for modern-day solipsism: "Coming down at breakneck speed/To where you really ought to be/Your voice like a foghorn/Has only led to swallowing your tongue." And in "Too Good to Believe," the two singers (real life-partners, by the way) harmonize, in that exquisite, eternal Gram-and-Emmylou style, about commitment: "It's too, too good to believe/That you are here right now with me/And if I die tomorrow/That'd be alright with me."
A long, long time ago, a pop band asked the rhetorical-but-right question, "Do you believe in magic?" Once in a while, we get the chance to believe again. This is one of those times.