At Tipitina's Tuesday night, I had certainly had Dawes issues.

photo of Dawes

Last night at Tipitina's, I tweeted, "Trying to decide: is Dawes sensitive or patronizing to women? Thoughts?" The question was prompted by singer Taylor Goldsmith's delivery of "Most People," the opening song of the set. He sang:

As she listens very carefully to a room of conversation
She can feel the planet orbiting through space
She hears pieces of arguments, beginnings of jokes
And the odd lines of a song she cannot place

And it all makes up an image that resists interpretation
Which is lately how she likes to see herself
How she does not believe in accidents, doesn't disagree out loud
And falls in love with every man she cannot help

His voice sounded sympathetic to the woman in the song, even if the words make her sound pretentious. By the chorus, he's on her for being full of herself or self-righteously deluded:

And she thinks "most people don't talk enough about how lucky they are
Most people don't know what it takes for me to get through the day
Most people don't talk enough about the love in their hearts"
But she doesn't know most people feel that same way 

I don't want to be the lyric police here, but what did this poor dear did to merit such a "gotcha"? Was it that she's full of herself, or that she falls in love with the wrong guys? The guys who aren't him? The guys who aren't inventorying her?

An answer to my initial question came in via Twitter: "The latter," and quoted another lyric: "I'll get drunk enough to tell you how I feel / about the men you love and how they all seem to get the best of you." Ten minutes after that tweet, Dawes performed the song, "Someone Will," which fleshes out the story. He'll tell her these things because he's falling in love with her, but he's talking to her in his mind's eye, not in real life, so he can say things like:

So I hope my voice can stay as clear as I need it to
But that my words take on the nature of a drill
To be set against the frozen sea inside of you
'Cause if I don't tell you I'm falling in love, someone will

Someone will and maybe someday you'll be listening
But I can be just as you need me up until
The guy you say you're looking for sounds like the kind of guy I want to be
But if you just want someone to hold you tonight, well then someone will

He "talks" to her without putting anything on the line because he hasn't actually said anything. To the band's credit, this isn't standard issue macho bluster, but all the flaws he sees are on the woman's side - frozen inside, not listening - while he's patient, stoic and available.

I might not have gone down this lit-crit hole if the band's sound didn't bring to mind '70s soft rock, starting with a couple of Toto chords in "Most People." Many of the bands had the same issues - smart guys who are more in love with their overlooked selves and the relationships they hypothesize than the objects of their desire. They sing about women with a warm, seeming sincerity that masks the self-absorbed undercurrent. Dawes' songs, like those from that era, come with lovely harmonies as standard issue, and they're equipped with clear, reliable hooks. The songs engage immediately and effectively, and the guitar/bass/drums/keys arrangements are streamlined and uncluttered. The band's set was a reminder of a basic truth about the importance of the music. People love to sing along, but good music will keep people from thinking about what those lyrics are actually saying.

Maybe my concerns about Dawes and women wouldn't have come to the fore if Shovels & Rope hadn't opened the show. Carrie Ann Hearst and Michael Trent aren't simply married partners; they're musical partners, down to the roles they play onstage. Each sings lead, each sings harmony, each plays guitar and each plays drums. Hearst has the bubbly charisma to front a band - "Let's kill someone," she told the crowd joyfully to introduce another murder ballad - but so does the more laconic Trent. Most importantly, they interact with each other as equals, sharing a mic even when Trent has to hunch down to Heart's drum kit mic to do it. They enjoy playing together, and the physicality of their performance was at odds with the remote, insulated, isolated narratives in Dawes' lyrics.

But the comparison ends there. Shovels & Rope's songs didn't sound snatched from halls of grad school; they're made of older stuff than that. They come from the folk, blues and country traditions, but rather than treat the songs with genteel respect, Hearst and Trent hop in the driver's seat, flick on the high-beams and mash the gas pedal to see what these babies will do. Some songs are left to their spare, lovely, acoustic ways, while others get a layer of fuzz and rock 'n' roll grime. Sometimes you get both in a song, and in each case it's not a programmatic decision but a musical one as they decide what gets them closer to the heart of the song.