Sarah Jurado/Courtesy of the artist
In "If I Find Love," Dolorean's Al James sings, "If I find love, I won't let it go." It's a measure of his vocal dexterity that he makes that conditional phrase sound wistful and — from the way he mashes the last five words together — both hopeless and hopeful.
Conflicted is Al James' default mood on Dolorean's new album, The Unfazed. In that same song, "If I Find Love," he admits, "The trouble is, I've been on both sides / Been a jealous husband and with others' wives." And yet, emerging from soggy Oregon after four years of touring and writing, Dolorean doesn't sound dolorous. The band's music is deliberate, but not maudlin; its brooding has a stand-up-straight backbone.
Tracks like "Hard Working Dogs" get Dolorean compared to Neil Young, with its "Down by the River" guitar chords and the way Al James curls his voice up into a keening but polite wail. What distinguishes the song most is the way the lushness of the melody contrasts with the rumination in the lyrics. This is even more meticulously apparent in another song called "Thinskinned," about squabbling lovers.
"I can't believe it would be better if you were tough as nails and I was tough as leather," James sings in the refrain of that song. He's a sensitive singer-songwriter in the best sense: He describes his own emotions, yes, but he also seeks to get under the skin of the person he's involved with.
Specifically, he says, "I'll do my best to see your point of view if you do your best to see that I'm not such a bad guy." This is, of course, the stuff of a thousand self-help couples-therapy books, so what makes James' insights useful is the music that underpins them. And what the Dolorean quintet offers is mood music that summons up the states of romantic frustration, confusion and curiosity — with few traces of self-pity.
In "Sweet Boy," the "sweet boy" James sings about is the narrator himself — it's a variation of the old idea that the love of a good woman makes him a better man: "Oh, what a sweet boy you've made of me." This is stated over a slow rhythm that's almost a dragging waltz — the entire creation is potentially insufferable, but Dolorean has a way of making such music rich and sweet.
In "Unfazed," Al James chants a list of things that don't affect him: "Unfazed by pain, unfazed by love," he sings. He's also unfazed by "jokes with no punchline" and "livin' 'til I die." It can seem on a first listen that Dolorean's new album is a slow-paced journey into James' navel, but he's unfazed by that, too.
He knows that as you continue to listen, you're going to get caught up in the things he's caught up in — trying to put to music the clutter of the things that comprise a life together. And he's unfazed by that daunting challenge, too.