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Dolorean - Not Exotic

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Artist: Dolorean

Album: Not Exotic

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Jun. 28, 2004

At first the title seems like it should sum things up pretty well, like a preemptive warning: no, Dolorean's debut is not exotic. In fact, it’s overbearingly understated. But the name seems to demand qualification, and indeed the album's lack of adventure is only the tip of the iceberg: with nine soft-spoken songs that seldom rise above a sort of folksy sleepwalk, Dolorean have made a record that's not exotic but still excellent, simultaneously unassuming and deeply felt.

First and foremost, Not Exotic is about loneliness and despair. Singer Al James derives his most acute power from understatement, courtesy of a weary, unexcitable drawl reminiscent of Mark Kozelek and Grandaddy's Jason Lytle but wholly his own. Lyrically he puts poetic vagueness to excellent use; with the exception of "Hannibal, MO," which unflinchingly narrates an arc of summer romance, murder, and remorse, James prefers to hint. All the same, he spins portraits of quiet heartbreak with fascinatingly rustic imagery, and seals their authenticity and depth with his simple delivery.

The liner notes list five players and a workaday rock band's worth of instruments (three members are credited on electric guitar), but Dolorean mostly sounds like James and his acoustic guitar, occasionally augmented by light percussion or a tasteful mandolin or organ. It's not that the four other members are unnecessary, but rather that their respective contributions blend seamlessly and consistently into a subdued background, leaving James and his quiet sentiment at the fore. And while this at first makes Not Exotic seem monochromatic, it ultimately creates delicately layered songs in the vein of a simpler Elliott Smith or Nick Drake: repetitive, but rewarding time after time.

The album also has its moments of immediate gratification, the kind that make listening again desirable in the first place. James works himself as close to a frenzy as he allows on "Traded For Fire" when he pleads "Don't let me settle down in a small northern town to die," but the song retires shyly a moment later. Instead of the overwrought emotional peaks a lesser record might default to, most of the standout highlights are the ones that stick out as slightly wrong, just tonally or metrically strange enough to catch the ear: the baroque cello of "Morningwatch"; the bewitching piano refrain of "The Light Behind My Head"; the extended pause before the chorus of "Sleeperhold." They add just enough complexity to songs that could otherwise stagnate, and lend them a sophistication that isn’t immediately apparent. But as easy as it is to underestimate its impact, Not Exotic carries surprising power and beauty.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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