Al James doesn't see himself as much of a singer—or much of a guitar player, for that matter.
He's just learned to work with what he has.
"I just try to get the best musicians around me as possible, and I put my time into writing the words," he says.
Songwriting may be James' greatest strength, but it's hard to imagine Dolorean without his acoustic guitar as an anchor or without his singular voice—a charbroiled, low-register speak-sing that seems to squeeze out buckets of Oregon rain (and sometimes mud) with each verse.
A rare Oregon native in a music scene dominated by imports, James straddles the same cultural divide as his friend, author and Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin. James, 33, is a no-bullshit frontman who sings about horses and backroads; he was a kid who tried his hand at college athletics before falling fully in love with music. But he's also a gifted, poetic lyricist who recently began a stint as a freelance copywriter for a local advertising firm. James can talk wine, and he had enough in the way of connections to persuade Portland director Gus Van Sant to shoot the cover of Dolorean's last album, You Can't Win. James is the archetypal local boy done good, whether folks back in Silverton recognize it or not.
Dolorean's music lives at that same intersection of high-concept and blue-collar. The band—keyboardist Jay Clarke, drummer Benny Nugent, bassist James Adair and lead guitarist Jon Neufeld—micromanages delicate arrangements (the strings and vocal harmonies on "Hard Working Dogs") and shows incredible musical restraint (the almost reggae-ish "Black Hills Gold") throughout its new album, The Unfazed. Yet, despite all this civility, they retain the swagger of a truckstop bar band in concert and even unleash a few full-fledged rock-outs on the new disc. "[The album] still seems pretty tame to me," James says. "I still feel like we have a long way to go when it comes to capturing the way I hear it live...but we'll get to that."
It's not that The Unfazed is Dolorean's best album to date—they're all great. Dolorean's recorded debut, 2003's Not Exotic, presented a fully mature band and a well-developed songwriting force in James (the haunting murder ballad "Hannibal, MO" is still a staple of James' solo gigs—and one reason he doesn't play very many weddings); subsequent albums Violence in the Snowy Fields (2004) and You Can't Win (2007) stand just as easily on their own. But The Unfazed—despite the three years it took to complete—feels like a much more relaxed effort. James has long traded frighteningly specific and linear lyricism for more minimal poetry; it can take a few listens before the genius of a turn of phrase ("Waking up early 'cause I can't sleep/ Getting' wild on a bottle 'cause I don't eat/ I have a habit of getting in a little too deep/ If I find love it'll be the end of me") sinks in. The music, too, is easier: Where You Can't Win was almost oppressively restrained—brushes on the drums; gorgeous, hushed harmonies from Laura Gibson; single-instrument solos staggering along in single-file—The Unfazed wrestles between hauntingly sparse stretches and buzzing, Neil Young-esque instrumental segments.
The Unfazed is also markedly less depressing than any of the band's previous efforts. Tracks like the vengeful "Country Clutter" and the restless "Fools Gold Ring" keep it from being altogether upbeat, but the album's closing track, the touching "How Is It," questions the narrator's luck ("How is it we have just known of each other/ And we talk like old friends/ And we kiss like young lovers/ And we have nowhere to stand except next to one another?") and takes a step away from the edge of the cliff Dolorean has always teetered on. "The general sentiment in country music is 'Things are bad, but we'll be OK. We'll get through it,'" James says. "I want to get to where I can state the second half of that more eloquently."
But eloquence has never really been a problem for Dolorean. Four exceptional albums into the band's career and there's hardly been an awkward musical moment along the way. Why the world hasn't entirely caught on is a bit of a mystery.
"I think we still fly under the radar a bit, but I don't take it personally," James says with a smile. That low profile can actually be liberating. Instead of plotting a big release show, Dolorean—a band that should be headlining the Crystal Ballroom by now—is playing a free show at one of its favorite bars, LaurelThirst. "How many times can you shake down your friends for a $10 cover over a decade?" James asks. "We've shifted our mentality to 'Let's just make it as fun as we can.'" "Fun" wasn't always an appropriate word for Dolorean. These days, it is.
Dolorean plays at Laurelthirst on Saturday, Dec. 18, with Meridian. 9 pm. Free. 21+.