Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

The Dimes create memorable folk-pop for latest EP

June 25, 2009

The Dimes are a band your history professors would love. The Portland-based folk-pop group recently released an EP, New England, in anticipation of their second full-length album tentatively scheduled to be released this coming September. The EP is not lazily titled. In fact, the subject matter of each song deals with 19th-century New England. The Dimes are historically aware, to say the very least.

The first track, “The Liberator,” is a simple song full of allusions to the American abolitionist movement of the 1800s. The song sings of a protagonist—the liberator—making up for his father’s inaction, saying what others will not say, continuing the legacy of John Brown. To some, the subject matter may sound dry or trite, but the with The Dimes it takes on an almost storybook feel, as if the lyrics belonged in the mental vaults of some revered oral tradition. The vocal delivery contributes to said effect through an even-keel tonality and a nostalgic glaze. The music consists of a single, plodding chord progression serving as a backdrop for whatever quirky element The Dimes choose to feature—say, for instance, mandolin tremolo, multi-part harmonies, or a duet featuring clarinet and melodica. The song’s pieces, and the band’s sound as a whole, are seductively congruous.

The historical narratives continue in “Clara,” whose title and lyrics refer to none other than Clara Barton—native New-Englander, abolitionist, suffragist, battlefield nurse, and founder of the American Red Cross. Using a wide range of old-time instruments The Dimes craft a personal account of Clara’s battlefield heroics as told by the unnamed narrator, presumably a mortally wounded soldier. The melody is wonderfully catchy, the foremost part of a musical texture that includes lap steel, harmonica, mandolin, guitar, and a deftly-written banjo riff. The lyrics give the music a gently despairing overtone as the soldier cries out for Clara to save him: “Hold me Clara, to keep me waiting/I don’t have long.” The song’s elements come together to create a mood that is both sorrowful and solid, and the music fades away with a sort of military cadence from the snare drum, cleverly and effectively implying a funereal resolution.

What follows is a short song entitled “Ballad of Winslow Homer.” Homer was a 19th-century artist from, you guessed it, New England. As an artist Homer worked a lot in watercolors, and this ballad by The Dimes has a similar feeling to the medium: light and fluid, but, in the right hands, not lacking in richness or depth. The piece features minimal percussion and simple guitar-picking akin to that of Iron and Wine or Simon and Garfunkel. Such rhythmic minimalism lets The Dimes display their knack for tasteful accents (this song features bells) and, more noticeably, their vocal talents. In case the listener has not yet been convinced, “Ballad of Winslow Homer” features another catchy melody backed up by tight pop harmonies, as well as some light and tasteful background “aah’s.” The Dimes demonstrate their creative vocal powers best on this pop ballad.

The fourth and final piece on the New England EP is a cover of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.” The Dimes’ version features a bit slower tempo and, instead of Lennon’s piano, The Dimes leave it to their reliable acoustic guitar playing to handle the harmonic structure. A minimal instrumental arrangement again pushes the spotlight on the vocals, which are arranged and executed in the folk-pop style that The Dimes excel at.

New England is well-balanced, smartly arranged, lyrically clever and exceptionally performed. The Dimes have made a memorable folk-pop EP, subtle in its sound but lasting in its impression. I ardently look forward to their full-length album. -Max Thorn

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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