in this modern age of recorded music, where the convenience of downloading has turned the music business back into a singles-based market, DV's 'the panic bell' proves that just because albums as a whole aren't selling like they used to doesn't mean that musicians aren't striving to put out collections of quality songs, sequenced and arranged with care. while the band has been putting out critically-praised albums and touring with a constant line-up for over a decade, dolly varden refuses to fall into the trap of creating the same album over and over.
from the opening notes of 'the panic bell', it is obvious that this is not a band to be pigeonholed into one specific genre. "complete resistance" and "everything", the first two tracks on the album, along with "you never will", which appears later on the disc, show the band at their most energetic and soulful. vocalist and songwriter steve dawson's vocals still retain a southern blue-eyed soulfulness that rivals alex chilton at his best. diane christiansen, dawson's wife and a fine songwriter in her own right, adds glorious complementary harmonies to steve's tracks which never seem contrived or superfluous.
the album never stays in one genre too long, leaving the listener to wonder just where the band is going next. on moments like "triumph mine, idaho", with its rocking, rave-up ending, "your last mistake", with hints of laurel canyon laid-back folk rock, and "all gonna change", with building harmonic intensity, dolly varden shows the band's appreciation for classic rock riffs and pop hooks. during these numbers, one can invision the band sounding amazing coming through a transistor radio speaker. dawson, again, accented by christiansen, floats over the music with the easy soulful vibe, but shows a different texture in these more traditional rock numbers, sounding more like marshall crenshaw or lindsey buckingham than van morrison or otis redding, but with no less sincerity or skill.
while dawson is the central vocalist on much of the album, christiansen's lead vocals on tracks including the angelic but mournful "the truth is told" and the subtle but effective social commentary "small pockets" are thoughtful contrasts to the more upbeat rock and soul thread that runs through much of the record. music fans that appreciate female vocals without trills and octave-jumping can find a great deal to latch on to in christiansen's strong but feminine voice.
beyond the vocal and songwriting talents of dawson and christiansen, the musicianship on 'the panic bell' is extraordinary without being showy. mark balletto again shows that he truly is one of chicago's best guitar players and that his strong live performances translate well to recording. the need for solid bass lines to create the soul core of the album is unfailingly accomplished by mike bradburn, and matt thobe's steady timekeeping holds the sound together while still remaining interesting and serving the diversity of the album's content.
while one should listen to the band's entire catalog to fully appreciate the scope of dolly varden's talent, 'the panic bell' is a fine showcase of a band that shows a great deal of growth as a musical unit, an understanding of what makes an album feel whole, and a mastery of a sound that is as warm as a live performance and, yet, professional without feeling overproduced.