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Dolly Varden's Diane Christiansen & Steve Dawson

THE PANIC BELL • Dolly Varden

Although it's tempting to assert that they don't make records like Dolly Varden's The Panic Bell anymore, it's far more accurate to say that they never really did. Led by the founding husband-and-wife, singer/songwriter duo of Steve Dawson (who wrote all but one of the album's 10 tunes) and Diane Christiansen, the group occupies a self-contained musical universe.

Sure, classic echoes abound throughout the taut and cohesive collection. But for all the Beatles, Band, or early Little Feat references you can comb out of the tightly threaded mix, there's an utterly distinctive, here-and-now artfulness to the proceedings that defies easy pigeonholing. Much like their higher-profile homies in Wilco, Dolly Varden (named, incidentally, after a species of trout that in turn took its name from a fictional Dickens character) blends vintage guitar tones and historically aware song craft with a bold and restless insistence on reinventing the wheel. And let's just say that the Chicago-based quintet is currently on a serious roll.

What's more, the aforementioned Sixties beacons illuminate only part of the story. Just as often as Dawson's finely wrought tunes salute Lennon/McCartney, Robbie Robertson (both influences simmer to the surface on "Complete Resistance"), Lowell George ("Triumph Mine, Idaho") or any other illustrious forefather, they call to mind a host of gifted inheritors. "Everything" and "You Never Will," a pair of ebullient pop-rockers, nod in the direction of Squeeze and Crowded House. "All Gonna Change" and Christiansen's "Small Pockets" evoke the bittersweet, autumnal vibe so convincingly conjured by bands such as the Jayhawks and Innocence Mission.  

But no matter how many comparisons crop up during an attentive listen to The Panic Bell, they serve to describe rather than define. Search the archives high and low and you won't find a dead ringer for Dolly Varden's arresting blend of serrated-edge melodicism, soulful vocals and impressionistic shards and splashes of lyric emotion. Truly a fish of a different color. • Mike Thomas

        Dolly Varden pinhole view

listen to clips        return to covers        dollyvarden.com

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Karl Greenow's PM feature on Americana, which includes a concert review and photos of Steve Dawson gigging solo

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