DOLLY VARDEN "The Panic Bell" Undertow

Friday, August 17, 2007

DOLLY VARDEN"The Panic Bell"Undertow

"SADNESS HARDLY ever leaves," announces Diane Christiansen in "Small Pockets," one of the songs on Dolly Varden's new album, which sounds all rootsy and bereft. But Christiansen isn't this Chicago quintet's principal singer, and such tunes as "The Truth Is Told," in which her vocals are paired with sobbing steel guitar, aren't the only option on "The Panic Bell." Half the time, it seems as if chief songwriter Steve Dawson and his cohorts are actually having a good time.

This album, the band's fifth, is still more alt-country than power-pop. The group is named not for a person but for a species of trout, and "The Panic Bell" has lots of rustic touches, including sepia-toned band photos and a song about an abandoned Idaho mine. Yet Dawson (who is Christiansen's spouse) must have brushed up on his Byrds and Beach Boys, yielding songs with cheerfully chiming guitars and airy, layered harmonies. Both are featured in "Everything," which starts as the disc's most exuberant track and then becomes its most lush. "Everything is better / When you are around," Dawson sings, and the music certainly is.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Thursday at Jammin' Java with Abra Moore.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company