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Exploring Spirituality With Dawes and Cory Chisel

February 13, 2010

I was listening to The Current’s wonderful Musicheads podcast the other day when host Bill DeVille (coolest name on the planet) asked his guests what musical trends they saw coming down the pike in the next few years.  DeVille commented that he saw dance music continuing to move to the forefront of the indie rock world, citing bands like MGMT and Passion Pit as bands that have maintained their indie cred while incorporating noticeable club music elements.  While I agree that there are many bands that have an eye on and an ear to the dance floor these days, my post today will focus on two bands that are bucking the dance music trend.

First up is Los Angeles’ Dawes, a folk-rock foursome that released their debut album North Hills on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records in August 2009.  The first time I listened to North Hills, I couldn’t stop thinking that these guys had a definite Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or Gram Parsons feel to them.  It sounds like each member has good vocal chops and they specialize in nice four-part harmonies that layer within generally strong rock songs.  The music is warm and inviting, conjuring up thoughts of long road trips with good friends.

Many of Dawes’ songs deal with spiritual themes, particularly with what seems sometimes like a disaffection for what might be considered the unfulfilled promises of religion.  On “When My Time Comes,” lead singer Taylor Goldsmith challenges a central tenet of Christianity when he sings “And if Heaven is all that was promised to me, why don’t I pray for death?”  In the next song “God Rest My Soul” he questions the desirability of eternal life through singing “the only thing that’s scarier than dying is not dying at all.”  And while every song doesn’t ask the same weighty questions, enough do to see something of a lyrical pattern.

Musically, the band draws from a range of influences, all of which hail from the country-rock end of the spectrum.  While the CSNY influence is strong, I hear the sound of The Band more and more with each listen.  These guys are also known for jamming with Conor Oberst and The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson and you can certainly hear those influences as well.  Word is that North Hills was recorded live on analog tape, and this lends itself to a raw sound where the harmonies sometimes go a little off key and if you listen closely you can hear a few missed riffs.  But overall this warms the sound and gives North Hills a timeless quality.  If you’re interested in taking a free listen, you can hear each song over at

The second band we’ll feature that foregoes the dance-pop trend is Appleton, Wisconsin’s Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons.  While the Wandering Sons have the same roots-rock base as Dawes, they also add in a little more soul and gospel flavor.  Thier debut album is called Death Won’t Send a Letter and it was released in September 2009 on Black Seal records.  The lead-off track “Born Again” has a strong early-Springsteen feel, down to the prominent organ that punctuates the hook and a backing xylophone.  Chisel has a deep, inviting voice that is vaguely reminiscent of Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill and that adds a sense of richness to his melodies.

Chisel’s spiritual leanings are obvious right out of the gate in Letter’s opening track, “Born Again.”  He lets us know that “mama didn’t raise me to be no Christian” while at the same time imploring the listener to get “born again”.  The internet tells me that Chisel’s father was a Baptist minister and that many of his musical influences stem from the gospel music he listened to growing up.  The music on Letter is undoubtedly soulful and carries a deep resonance that hints not just at a spiritual journey but at some pain along the way.  “So Wrong for Me” and “Tennessee” are pure singer-songwriter heaven, while “Longer Time At Sea” and “What Do You Need” are more straight-ahead rockers.  This variety proves that Chisel has range, most likely honed in the small bars and venues around his hometown of Appleton. 

Along with his gospel pedigree, Chisel boasts some pretty hefty collaborators on this album.  Drawing on his past work with Raconteur Brendan Benson (who also helped with the arrangements on “Born Again”), Chisel utilizes the talents of “Little Jack” Lawrence and Patrick Keeler in fleshing out the sounds on Letter.  My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel also lends his talents on guitar.  You can also check out a recent Daytrotter session with Chisel, which provides you with some raw live tracks.  You can also take a free test drive of Death Won’t Send a Letter over at

Dawes and Chisel are touring together right now and their tour schedule can be found here.  If you’ve got an Americana bent in your musical tastes, you can’t go wrong seeing these guys live.

  1. Chissy permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:15 am

    I have to agree, i don’t know Dawes too well, but I know and love Cory and the band. Death Won’t Send a Letter is one of the best albums I’ve gotten this year and i can’t wait to see them on tour (in columbus) on the 17th! It’s going to be an awesome show, I definitely think any/everyone should go out and see it

    • Caleb permalink
      February 15, 2010 10:14 pm

      Thanks for the comment and the plug, Chissy! I would love to hear both of these bands live as I suspect their sound is much fuller than you can get from mp3s. Enjoy the show!


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