In Brief: It’s extremely difficult to get a “greatest hits” collection right. But Doves’ decade-spanning collection proves that it’s possible to pass the test with flying colors.
I have been borderline obsessed with the music of Doves this year. While my fandom started late compared to some fans, with the release of Kingdom of Rust just last year, I decided to start digging into the British band’s archives earlier this year, prompted by the release of their new “best-of” album. Normally, it can take a while after I get into a new band for me to start exploring the back catalogue, given all of the new music that’s constantly competing for my attention. But when a record label actually works with an artist to agree upon a list of songs that represent them well as their “best” work, instead of just a rote list of singles played in chronological order with a B-side not good enough to make one of their albums tacked on as the lone “new” track, the artist’s music basically sells itself at that point. I don’t get excited about best-of discs very often, and like a lot of music fans, I can get extremely picky about personal favorites that were left out when an artist I’ve known and loved since the early days finally puts one out. But The Places Between: The Best of Doves gets it right, almost unfailingly. Sure, I could easily name several favorites from the one album I already that didn’t make the cut, and I’m starting to discover the occasional track from their older albums that might be worthy, but then, Doves are the kind of band where there’s plenty of non-single material that’s worthy enough for a collection like this. What they chose comprises 15 tracks (one of them genuinely new, and totally worth it) that pretty much fill the capacity of a single disc. For the diehards, there’s even a bonus disc of B-sides and lesser-known album tracks, which probably does a lot to satiate the completists while not cluttering the main disc with too much hodgepodge. The ability to choose between the basic or deluxe package is key for those not wanting to spend two discs’ worth of money to get one disc’s worth of what they really want. While the bonus disc certainly has its highlights, I’ll actually be reviewing the single-disc version, because that’s what I’ve really been spending my time on and what I can assure you is more than worth your money.
So let’s say you’ve never heard of Doves. What are they like, and how do they compare to other popular British bands? Well, there’s the obligatory comparisons to Coldplay, which I suspected were unfair when I reviewed Kingdom of Rust last year, and which exploring their history has confirmed for me. Any similarity (which you certainly won’t find in the vocals due to Jimi Goodwin‘s darker, huskier tones, to say nothing of the oddball contributions from the twin Williams brothers) can probably be traced back to common influences that both Doves and Coldplay drew from, so don’t be fooled into thinking they’re imitators when you hear a bit of that chimey guitar hitting every quarter note. Elbow is also a common comparison, which isn’t at all out of line – Guy Garvey and Jimi Goodwin can be difficult to tell apart at times, to the point where they’ve actually guested on each other’s songs and I was none the wiser. But Elbow’s generally got more of a refined, almost classical bent to some of their stuff, while Doves are more raggedy, and in their mellower material, more experimental and ambient. I’d give Doves the edge over Elbow, personally, and possibly even over Coldplay, even though I still prefer Viva la Vida song-for-song to any of Doves’ complete albums. Doves tend to cast a darker mood in many of their songs, and yet they’re defiantly up-tempo where Coldplay and Elbow are often more restrained, which means that several of their rockers can get me quite pumped even if some of the lyrics are a downer. They sing about the sun and the summer an awful lot, so even if they’re mourning the gradual loss of these happy things, it still leads me to a wistful, happy place more often than not.
There simply isn’t a bad track – or even a middling one – on the main disc of The Places Between. The only gripe I can really make is that they gave the band’s earlier albums – 2000’s Lost Souls and 2002’s The Last Broadcast – a bit more weight than their more recent ones – 2005’s Some Cities and the aforementioned Kingdom of Rust from 2009. Some Cities gets the worst of the shaft, at only two songs (though to be fair, there’s a lot of weirdness on that album), while Kingdom probably hasn’t been around long enough for its best tracks to oust more classic songs in the minds of most fans. (From my perspective, most of that album is classic Doves.) What’s most surprising is that some singles were actually left out in favor of deep album material that the band members themselves considered exemplary – so no “Winter Hill”, “House of Mirrors”, or “Sky Starts Falling”. (All good songs, but not quite top tier.) Remember that they stuffed it with as many songs as they could possibly fit – and to do this without cutting some of the longer, jam-oriented tracks down to polite radio single length is an accomplishment. A few of the older songs that made the cut actually sound to my ears like they would have been hits, yet were never released as singles. All of this is to say that Doves have a hell of a lot of quality material to choose from. What made the cut was probably an attempt to make the best-of disc flow as if it were an album in and of itself, planned out to flow well from front to back, while not cheating by opening or closing with songs that served that function on their original album. It worked. I never want to skip around in this disc, since it plays so beautifully from end to end. Heck, when I’ve got this thing playing in the car, I’m tempted to drive somewhere a bit out of my way just so I can listen longer. I’m a pretty impatient guy when I’m behind the wheel, so that’s high praise.
1. There Goes the Fear
Starting off a CD with a seven-minute epic might seem a bit extreme, especially for a greatest hits collection, but this isn’t one of those power ballads that slowly builds up – it’s pretty action-packed all the way through. It actually fools you into thinking it’s a simple slice of jangle-pop at first, due to how that opening guitar lick rings out over and over. But the heavier elements of the song turn up in short order – first Jimi Goodwin’s voice, urging a lovely brown-eyed ex to let go of all hesitation and take the first train out of town and away from the life she knew. Then Andy Williams with an infectious, clattering drumbeat. This song’s cohesive and yet all over the map – little bits of electronic keyboard and warped background vocals show up here and there, and the song’s final chorus slowly fades into a proverbial jungle of tribal-sounding rhythmic goodness. It just sounds like the band had an absolute blast jamming on this one, and didn’t want to cut it short. So this gem from The Last Broadcast escaped the boundaries of the traditional radio single, and the song was better for it. It hardly feels like seven minutes have gone by when Andy ends on that last, confident bada-ba-ba-BAM-BAM!!!
2. Black and White Town
POUND POUND POUND POUND! Man, that beat is just relentless. Too bad they already titled a song “Pounding”, ’cause it would have been perfect here. Placing the second track from Some Cities as the second track on this disc might be cheating slightly, but this one follows out of “There Goes the Fear” so flawlessly that the two tracks feel made for each other. This one’s a contrast of playful and workmanlike tendencies – you’ve got that insistent beat, yet the overall rhythm of the song is bouncy and syncopated, with aggressive piano chords forming the main melodic hook. Jimi portrays a small-town man with a hankering for a bender – he wants to find a city with real nightlife and get out of the podunk, never-heard-of-it place where he’s forced to spend his weekdays. There’s danger in that booming metropolis, but he’s drawn to it like a moth to flame. There’s a spoken part in the second verse (OK, more like shouted) that’s a bit weird at first, but once you get used to it, it’s one of the most defining moments of the song. So is Jez Williams’ zig-zagging guitar solo. There’s never a dull moment here.
The second (and final!) appearance from Some Cities is this comparatively mellow song – still upbeat, but more colorful, more wistful. There’s a three note motif that just comes whistling through the air like the winter wind – it’s beautiful, but it makes you want to put a coat on or something. There’s also a glockenspiel that’s been punched up in the mix a bit compared to the original version, which is fine, since the original sort of fell into a hole where it meant to get ramped up for the first verse. The song’s clearly about summer, and yet the mood is so wintry – maybe the title’s just giving me a bad case of synesthesia here. (“Snowden” is actually the name of a character from the novel Catch-22, and also a pretty good indie rock band from Atlanta, but the latter was probably in its infancy when this song was written, and I don’t know enough about the novel to make any connection with the former.) Jimi’s mood is rather fatalistic here, either because a relationship is ending or perhaps someone’s life is, and he asks a question that is perhaps rhetorical: “If this should be our last summer, why should I care?” That’s either really depressing or really liberating, depending on how you look at it. Either nothing matters any more, and that sucks, or nothing matters any more, so might as well enjoy everything while you’ve got it. I’ll take the latter option, because the song’s too lovely for me to let it get me down. Interestingly, right in the middle of all this musical splendor, there’s this dirty, fuzzed-out guitar solo. It definitely switches up the mood, but it isn’t long before we get swept back to the melodic, sentimental place where we started.
4. Here It Comes
Since the opening track on Lost Souls, called “Firesuite”, is an instrumental, this is actually the first taste of a vocal Doves track that potential new fans got on the band’s first album. It’s a strange one, too – the guitars have a bit of a sixties vibe, there’s plenty of room for soling on the guitar piano, and organ, and Andy Williams handles the lead vocal during the verses, his coolly detached, almost alien voice painting a surreal picture of a psychedelic weekend bleeding into a sober week. Jimi takes over for the chorus, establishing early on that Doves really love the images of sun and summer, as the chorus is all about looking forward to “my day in the sun”. (I actually thought he was singing “summer” at first. Similar meaning either way.) In terms of both vocals and overall sound, it’s completely non-indicative of the path that the band (and indeed, even the rest of their debut album) would follow, but kudos to them for being unpredictable from the get-go.
I thought this was a rather ordinary song at first. It’s definitely one of the band’s most straightforward, in terms of both music and lyrical meaning. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” essentially sums up Jez’s encouragement to a person in whom he sees “a hreat of summer soul”, and also the more conventional “heart of gold”. His words come out calmly, evenly, over a mid-tempo, chiming groove that just will not quit. I’d forgive you for being reminded of A Rush of Blood to the Head-era Coldplay, and by extension, the endless imitators in the decade that followed. But this track was released on The Last Broadcast, which makes it a few months older than Rush. In truth, both bands were already skirting the edges of that sound back in 2000. Regardless, I got this weird wave of nostalgia for the middle of that decade when I first heard this, which was sort of comforting but also sort of “been there, heard that”. Now that I’ve put it in perspective and taken time to soak up the sonic weirdness lurking underneath the surface (seriously, what’s with those weird whispers during the bridge?), it plays a little better with me. As these chimey Britpop grooves go, this one kicks a little more than most of Coldplay’s stuff. It’s also got a rather amusing mondegreen, since when Jez sings “Words, they mean nothing, so you can’t fault me”, his enunciation of the word “fault” isn’t exactly the greatest.
6. Kingdom of Rust
The title track from the band’s most recent album actually isn’t one that I’d consider one of their best – it’s a bit too much “simmer” and not enough “boil” to quite make it up there for me – but it’s still a good example of Doves’ fondness for splicing together sunny jangle-pop and alternative scuzziness. While the verses feel a bit like a train chugging up a hill, there’s another wonderful guitar melody that comes spilling out during the chorus, making it all worthwhile. Another fuzzed-out guitar solo rounds out the highlights as the band paints a hazy picture of a dystopian world where trust doesn’t come cheap. There’s so much more of that world to explore than what’s indicated by the tracks that made the cut here, but again, that’s a minor complaint.
7. Sea Song
This is the kind of track that, if I’d heard it on Lost Souls back when it was new, I’d have assumed I was weird for considering it a favorite. It fools you into thinking it’s an instrumental at first, its minor key acoustic melody looping around, searching in vain for some sort of resolution. Jimi’s vocals hit all the right tense notes once a few repetitions of the instrumental verse and refrain have passed, but he, too, avoids landing on anything resolved. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing – melodies that paint the darker hues, that are beautiful without quite doing what the ear expects. But this song of intense longing has no chorus to speak of – the verses each trail off into more instrumental goodness. I’m OK with that – I find it captivating despite how it defies expectations. It actually feels like it has more breadth and depth than the catchier tracks that preceded it, even though we’re actually on the fourth five-minute song in a row. I still don’t know what’s up with the creepy whispers. There’s probably more to decode here than I’ve taken the time to discover.
Aha, there’s that title they used earlier than I wanted them to. I can’t complain. Andy’s drums are once again relentless, hitting literally every quarter note for the duration of the song. Unlike the furious tone of “Black and White Town”, it actually drives a song with a much more optimistic mood – perhaps still stuck on the fatalistic notion of things not lasting forever, but also determined not to waste what’s left as Jimi pleads, “Seize the time, ’cause it’s now or never, baby.” Perhaps that’s why so many Doves songs have that sense of constant motion and urgency to them – the band seems ultra-aware of the passage of time. Jez’s guitar solo in this one is just joyous. I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
Color me surprised. I would have never expected this surreal, suite-like piece to get chosen to represent the best that Kingdom of Rust had to offer. It’s one of my personal favorites – but then again, about half the album is. I’m just shocked that it beat out the more pedestrian “Winter Hill”, to be honest. I believe I compared the beginning of this song to a ballet when I first reviewed it – not that Jimi’s dark voice and his bass are the kind of sounds you’d expect in a ballet, but you get the picture. This slow dance in 6/8 time gradually blurs into what sounds like an almost completely different song as Jez takes the mic, the drums begin to roll, what was once slow and ponderous becomes a vortex of motion. It’s good to have some weird stuff like this amidst the more obvious hits.
10. Catch the Sun
Oh man, this one just gets me psyched. It’s my favorite track from the decade-old Lost Souls – another ode to grabbing the daylight while it’s gone. Even in this early phase, Doves made such a full sound with only three members, pulling together a massively hooky melody with just the right amount of lift to it, a somewhat grungy lead guitar and a clean lead guitar, even double-stuffing the bridge with solos from both of them. (OK, so the lead guitar solo just copies the chorus melody, but it’s the perfect refrain after the rhythm guitar amps up the energy level.) What seems to be a simple song of defiant optimism reveals a bit of subversion just under the surface, as Jimi tells a departed lover, “I miss the way you lie.”
Ah, the memories. I know, it’s weird to get sentimental over a song that’s not even two years old yet, but this was the first Doves song I heard. It fooled me into thinking they were more of an electro band at first (which is interesting given their origins as the dance outfit Sub Sub), but once again, this song has an atmosphere unlike most of the band’s work. Imagine tapping a hi-hat several times in rapid succession, sampling that, tweaking it, and using it as the beat for a song. Then layer machine gun-like electronic beats on top of it, then throw in a funky guitar solo, then set the whole thing on an alien planet… and that’s “Jetstream”. It’s funny how I commented earlier that it would be weird for new fans to hear Andy’s voice first thing on Lost Souls when my first exposure was a song helmed by his twin brother Jez, and I didn’t even notice at first that the band had multiple vocalists (perhaps because this song’s so weird that I didn’t realize Jez’s vocals weren’t being somehow tweaked by the electronics). To be fair, Jimi chimes in on the refrain. However you want to describe it, it’s five and a half minutes of light-speed goodness, and for me, it was a perfect introduction to the band.
12. The Man Who Told Everything (Summer Version)
While not a personal favorite of mine due to its more languid pace, I can understand why this would be considered a standout for long-time Doves fans. What starts as a dry, dusky ballad turns into a dramatic, string-laden tale of intrigue over the course of nearly six minutes. I get the feeling that this could be the soundtrack for a spy movie where some sort of subterfuge is going on – the guitars have that sort of “secret agent man” feel even though it’s more of a slow, gentle number. Truth be told, I can’t differentiate between the “Summer version” and the original album version on Lost Souls, possible because I haven’t spent as much time with the early albums as I should. I do remember that the main guitar melody from it actually gets reprise a few tracks later on that album. Seems almost unnecessary, since you get to spend plenty of time with it swirling around in your head as it is.
At long last comes the brand new song, recorded for the express purpose of having something previously unreleased on the greatest hits disc. And it doesn’t feel like an imposter at all, sandwiched in between such monolithic fan favorites. I wouldn’t be able to tell that it was the odd man out, the song with its worth yet to be proven, because I fell in love with this one pretty much instantly. Part of that’s because it’s another piece of zippy guitar pop like some of Doves’ most radio-friendly stuff, and yet there’s a subtlety to it even as it goes whizzing by – a dramatic swoop as the chords shift from major to minor and back again. This complex yet instantly accessible melody whisks us down south (relative to England, that is) to a sunny vacation spot in Spain, a place where a man is reliving memories of happier times with a past love, trying not to think about her with her current main squeeze, but just hoping that she’ll somehow accept his invitation to come back and relive their old dreams. The song in particular doesn’t have any Spanish motifs that I’m aware of, other than a hint of flamenco guitar in the intro (so maybe the action takes place in Gibraltar?) – it’s just a straight-ahead rockin’ good time. (The music video adds the missing Spanish atmosphere. Though Spanish speakers will probably complain that they’re singing it with an accent on the “u” instead of the “i”.) As the song builds to its climax, the chords are hammered so hard that they seem to ring out like bells… until all fades away and a lone guitar mulls over the chords one last time. Absolutely stunning work – quite possibly my favorite song of the year 2010.
14. Caught by the River
There’s something so despairing and yet so compassionate about this song. It’s the closing track on The Last Broadcast, and my favorite track on that album by about a mile, largely because you just don’t see its power coming until you’re completely swept up in it. Some of the best songs, to my ears, are the ones where the music accurately evokes the atmosphere that the lyrics are trying to convey, and this one, which pleads with a person at the end of his rope not to go completely off the deep end, starts off as a simple acoustic ballad but adds on the layers of percussion and electric guitar and backing vocals, noticeably increasing the tempo as it goes, which makes it sound like an utter outpouring of passion as Jimi pleads “Would you give it all away now? … Don’t want to see you come apart.” Those four repeating chords are so simplistic and yet so effective – the swirling eddies of sound remind me of “Spellbound” (which really should be on this disc), but much less dark. This one’s so perfect as a finale that it’s hard to believe we’ve got one more track to go – but I’m actually glad they didn’t end on a track that served that function on its album.
15. The Cedar Room
We end with the beginning – if I’m not mistaken, this is the track that put Doves on the map. This is their “Yellow“. Sort of. It’s the band’s longest song (that I can recall, anyway), stretching out to seven and a half minutes due to a long, hazy harmonica intro that sets a bit of a woodsy tone for it, and a chilled out drum-and-handclap groove that is in no hurry to reach its destination. I find myself comparing it to “Words” in that it’s Doves boiled down to their most primal elements – a ringing guitar melody and a relentless rhythm. As with so many of Doves’ songs, this one’s about love lost, and in this case, the visual memory of a lover’s bedroom seems to be the trigger for Jimi’s angst. He’s sleeping alone now, but imagining that he’s a shadow in her big, stately bedroom. The lyrics are actually quite vague and elliptical – more mood than story. I think this might be the one time on The Places Between where the band gets a bit too bloated for their own good – I like the song, but I’m not sure it needs to take as long to start up or to wind down. The soft comedown at the end does make it work well as a closing thought, though. So I can’t be too hard on the song.
At this point, I think I’ve ascribed enough value to these fifteen songs that they pretty much justify the purchase of the 2-disc collection all by themselves. That disc is worth a listen for those who want to go a little more off the beaten path with Doves, though as with most odds-and-ends collections, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. The band stated that their intention was to clear out all of the unreleased material and basically close a chapter in their career. (And even then, a good chunk of the disc is made up of lesser-known album tracks, or alternate takes thereof.) So apparently that’ll put a diehard fan’s collection quite a bit closer to the level of “exhaustive”.
The timing of my obsession with this band couldn’t be worse, as the release of this package denotes a break in their discography – a hiatus of yet-to-be-determined length. Then again, given how long fans apparently had to wait in between Some Cities and Kingdom of Rust, maybe it’s not unreasonable to think they’ll resurface with something new by 2012 or 2013. In any event, I’ve got plenty to chew on during the break, and this best-of collection has done an absolute bang-up job of making me want to explore the old albums as if they were new. I figure that’s the best a greatest hits disc can do for a relatively new fan.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
There Goes the Fear $2
Black and White Town $1.50
Here It Comes $1.50
Kingdom of Rust $1
Sea Song $1.50
Catch the Sun $2
The Man Who Told Everything (Summer Version) $1
Caught by the River $2
The Cedar Room $1
Jimi Goodwin: Lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums
Jez Williams: Vocals, guitar
Andy Williams: Vocals, drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.