Over the past several years, Americans have grown accustomed to hearing rising stars on the British music scene make pompous pronouncements about everything from their talent level to their odds of success in the colonies. The standard setters in this regard are the men from Oasis, whose Liam Gallagher told Westword back in 1995 that the group's members were incapable of writing a bad song and deserved every bit of press attention being lavished upon them "because we're important." Gallagher added that he once believed in God, but "now I believe in me."
These days, the British press seems to have lost its collective belief in Oasis; the number of laudatory critiques about the combo has dipped considerably since the mid-'90s, as have the performers' fortunes. Instead, tastemaking scribes have thrown their weight behind Doves, an absorbing outfit whose central figures, twins Andy and Jez Williams plus cohort Jimi Goodwin, create widescreen rock that's alternately melodic and anthemic. New Musical Express labeled a March 16 Doves live review "The Second Coming" -- nothing like a casual reference to Jesus Christ to up the ante -- and concluded an April 13 story prompted by the band's new disc, The Last Broadcast, with traditional understatement: Writer James Oldham called the CD "the sound of liberation, a monumental record that will soundtrack this year and beyond. You get the feel that even the band themselves haven't come to terms with just how astonishing it is. They, like the rest of the world, though, shouldn't be in the dark for long."
Given that praise of this sort is generally reserved for saints and martyrs, Andy Williams (no relation to the "Moon River" crooner) could be excused for allowing his head to swell a size or three. But during a conversation he conducts on a cell phone during a bumpy bus ride in his homeland, he comes across as friendly, eager to please and thoroughly modest.
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"We're not so naive as to think we can break America in one or two tours," he says. "It's not as easy as that. And we've never wanted to go out and blow our own trumpet, really. We want the music to do the talking, and if people like it, that speaks volumes."
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So, too, does Williams's response to the headline NME slapped on its most recent in-print tribute -- "How They Became the New Radiohead" -- and simultaneous attempts to liken Doves to a band Jez refers to in the article as "U fucking 2."
"It's irritating," Andy concedes, "because we try our utmost to have our own songs, our own style. Not that U2 is a bad band. You have to respect them in a lot of ways. And we really respect Radiohead. But even if both bands use technology and have some intelligence in them, we're very different from them, and we have different backgrounds. That's why it's too easy to say 'They're the new Radiohead.' To me, that's just lazy journalism."
True enough, since Doves have plenty of history worth exploring. The Williams boys came of age in Manchester, an English community that's associated with a slew of bands that made marks in the '80s and '90s, including the Stone Roses, Charlatans UK and, coincidentally, Oasis. Although they were twins, they weren't forced to dress alike, and neither did they engage in "twin talk," a secret language some multiples develop that makes perfect sense to them but sounds like gibberish to the rest of the world. The closest he and Jez come to this form of communication, Andy jokes, is "after about ten pints of lager." But, he adds, "We've always been very close. Of course, I used to fight with him occasionally, but very rarely. We generally got along very well; we were our own gang, really."
They grew even closer after discovering rock and roll. "We had an older brother who was really into music, and we picked up on that very early, when we were like seven or eight. And from then on, it was really an obsession. There were a couple of times when one of us liked bands the other one hated. There'd be the odd record where one of us would go, 'What are you into that for? That's bloody awful!' But generally, we were both into the important bands" -- a list that runs the gamut from the Jimi Hendrix Experience to Manchester's own New Order.
On the surface, Goodwin would seem to be on the outside of this relationship looking in -- but Williams, who's been mates with the third Dove since age fifteen, denies it. "I think we're musically very much on the same wavelength, and that goes for all three of us. I've been playing with Jez for about twenty years and with Jimi for about twelve years. So a lot can go unsaid, which is good."
As the three were evolving from music fans to music makers, Manchester became known as a rave mecca -- and before long, they were up to their necks in the movement. Operating under the name Sub Sub, they hit number three on the British charts with "Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)," a single stylistically in keeping with the burgeoning acid-house genre; it was issued by Bar One, a label owned by Rob Gretton, who managed New Order. (Gretton died in 1999.) Sub Sub's debut full-length, Full Fathom Five, came along two years later, and with talents such as Tricky and New Order's Bernard Sumner eager to participate in musical collaborations with them, the lads seemed bound for electro-dance stardom.
But something odd happened on the way to the disco: A fire destroyed their studio and equipment just as they were becoming less interested in thumping beats and more intrigued by conventional rock instrumentation. This switch was formalized in 1998, when Sub Sub was beached and Doves took wing. The combo's first EP under its new moniker, Cedar, arrived in October of that year and was immediately embraced by the country's music journos. More EPs and singles followed, with the material on them forming the core of Doves' first full-length, Lost Souls. An atmospheric collection in which rock verities are given a high-tech makeover, the disc is loaded with memorable cuts, including the propulsive "Here It Comes," the sweeping "Sea Song," and "The Man Who Told Everything," an open-hearted ditty that drove fans to the heights of rapture. Reviewers, too: NME called Lost Souls "the first great album of the new millennium."
The CD made a splash commercially, as well, moving a more than respectable 160,000 units in England. Just as important, the group's live performances were widely judged to be first-rate -- and appropriately so. The act's July 2001 show at Englewood's Gothic Theatre was consistently exhilarating as the players moved from mood to mood with deceptive ease.
"In a way, it's almost like a DJ spinning," Williams says of the group's in-concert methodology. "We don't like to take too many breaks between songs, and we like to find ways to merge different types of songs into each other. And we like to keep our gigs really exciting and up; we don't want to come across as cold. We want to be somebody you can relate to and not just stand behind banks of equipment, because that can alienate audiences. We really try to connect."
Their ability to do so hasn't prevented what Williams sees as some basic misconceptions about Doves. Specifically, scribes repeatedly liken the band to so-called shoegazer groups such as the Smiths (yet another Manchester product), using as evidence the songs' dramatic structures and supposedly bleak themes. These conclusions, which reached their peak in the wake of Lost Souls, don't make much sense to Williams. "Some of the lyrics on Lost Souls were quite dark," he admits. "But some of our favorite music has a dark side, and relating to it can be an uplifting experience -- so we didn't see it that way ourselves, and we didn't want people to see the next album that way."
Few will: Despite the finality of its title, The Last Broadcast is anything but downbeat. "Words" rolls on a wave of electrified psychedelia that gives way to an elegiac guitar figure and subtly tweaked harmonies; "There Goes the Fear," already a smash in England, starts out jaunty and spare before piling on densely layered background vocals and what Williams accurately describes as "a Brazilian percussion workout"; "Where We're Calling From" offers a trippy, clouds-parting intro to "N.Y.", a sweet-tempered riff session; and "Caught by the River" builds up a considerable head of ecstasy over nearly six blissful minutes. And as if that's not enough, early pressings of the album contain a four-song bonus disc that's all thriller/no filler: "Hit the Ground Running" is a pumping rocker that samples, of all things, Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"; "Far From Grace" belies its title thanks to soulful production brimming with faux strings; "Northenden" boosts an acoustic ditty into the space age; and "Willow Song" is a folk air that's as comforting as a gentle breeze.
Taken as a whole, The Last Broadcast is impressive, ambitious and reminiscent of Radiohead more due to quality than content. But Doves' lyrical pursuit of big emotions is apt to put predisposed listeners in mind of a certain Irish quartet. Although U2 and the Williams-Williams-Goodwin triumvirate don't really sound that much alike, the "Satellites" couplet "Sweet Lord, all I've known is badness/Sweet Lord, all I've known is pain" and "The Sulphur Man" line "I wish you could find what matters" suggest a mildly sour twist on certain Bono aphorisms, and "Here comes something wonderful/So don't let them throw it away," from "Words," would have fit in well on "Beautiful Day."
Still, Williams offers no apologies for the more direct approach. "We wanted to make the optimism clear," he says. "It was quite a conscious decision, really, that we made early on in the process. 'There Goes the Fear' and 'N.Y.' are the first two songs we worked on, and since they're both very positive and optimistic, they set the tone for the record. We just thought, 'This is a good way of following the whole record through.' Of course, you don't want your music to sound sugary and saccharine -- but hopefully because we were aware of the danger, we didn't fall into that trap. Especially musically, it's very up, but even when the lyrics are positive, they still have a little bit of a dark edge. So that flips it a little, I think.
"For us, Lost Souls was a statement about where we were at when we made it," he continues. "But we were feeling a bit more upbeat when we were making this record, and you can only write about what you're feeling, you know? We just wanted to write what felt natural for us. In some ways, maybe it's easier to write about more melancholy stuff, but I think it's all about trying to test yourself."
Williams looks at the band's current American trek in much the same way. The group is slated to play venues that are much smaller than ones it can fill in England, and roughly the same size of those it headlined during its previous march across the continent, but Williams isn't complaining. "Originally when we went to America, we thought things would be a bit quiet, but the reaction we got was just brilliant. American audiences are really noisy, you know, and you really feel it up there. We're looking forward to experiencing that again."
No doubt Doves aficionados are also filled with anticipation -- but don't expect Williams to make a big deal about it. "No amount of me going, 'We are the best band on earth!' is going to convince people if they don't like the music and don't like what we are. I don't think the American public likes it when British bands come over and say they're the best thing since sliced bread. And at the end of the day, that's not really our style."
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