Somewhere in the biggest box of crayons there must be room for a color
called Manchester Grey. This hue looks the way the "Factory bands" (as
in Tony Wilson's record label) sound: dry guitars, mournful vocals, and
offbeat percussion and bass, with liberal touches of digital delay and
a certain severity or starkness that make negative space a crucial part
of the compositions.
Only a few notable bands that came from Manchester in the years between the post-punk and grunge eras didn't lay at least a test patch of Manchester Grey to see how well it suited them. It could be found in the recordings of Inspiral Carpets, The Smiths, Oasis, Durutti Column, Stone Roses, Joy Division and New Order, and ever onward through the mid-'90s even Happy Mondays had it on occasion.
All this has changed over the past decade as urban renewal has brightened the
traditionally industrial city up. Perhaps the most intriguing example: tearing
down the legendary Factory-owned Hacienda Club and replacing it with a pricey
block under the Hacienda name. (Thomas Frank, take a bow at
this particular conquest of the cool.)
Manchester's Doves are old enough to have kept a crayon or two of Manchester Grey in reserve. The band's origins are legendary by now: Jimi Goodwin and brothers Andy and Jez Williams released a series of well-received dance singles under the name of Sub Sub shortly after the glory days of rave, only to pull the plug after a fire in 1996 destroyed their studio and the master tapes of their in-process second album. A name change made official what was already the case a movement away from techno in favor of more traditional rock instrumentation. And hence, Phoenix-like, arose Doves.
Doves' debut album, the somewhat antiseptic Lost Souls, lent itself more readily to admiration than genuine appreciation, but in 2002 they returned with a far warmer sound on the anthemic, occasionally blustery The Last Broadcast. And now the band has split the difference via Some Cities,
which suggests a progression and a retreat at the same time.
Moving away from what we've come to expect of the band are the title track and "Sky Starts Falling," which sound like garage rock by Doves' standards, the band captured in rare raw form with only the multitracked guitars betraying the studio's presence. The dramatic "Black and White Town" finds me fighting the urge to sing along while making jazz hands, the off-kilter 2/4 beat and piano chord flourishes catching me off guard with their giddiness.
The album's centerpiece, "Walk in Fire," conjures up a wondrous combination of influences, Jez Williams' guitars echoing Scotty Moore's picking on those old Elvis records. The song finds Goodwin and Andy Williams locking into a loping groove on bass and drums, the drummer working overtime to introduce new percussive elements as the song grows, a mid-song New Order-inspired melodica solo eliciting a grin as Goodwin sings his song of redemption. The gorgeous "Snowden" brings out the bombast as an eerie, wintry-sounding theremin winds through the song and reminds us that, as on their earlier albums, Doves are not averse to progging out when the mood strikes, a perception strongly reinforced by "The Storm," which immediately follows.
But this relapse into prog rock is not the sole backslide the band makes here.
With the exception of the aforementioned "Sky Starts Falling," the low-energy
latter half of the album dissolves into the murk, Goodwin at his gloomiest sailing
the band into the gloaming. His voice's natural somberness works
well against the band's more buoyant material, but when it's left to wallow in
minor-key balladry the sheer quantity of Manchester Grey suffocates and
overwhelms tracks such as "Someday Soon" and the echoey album closer "Ambition." Jez
Williams' higher-pitched pipes get some airing out on "Shadows of Salford," reminding
the Goodwin haters that the band could've made a worse choice in deciding on
lead vocalist duties.
It's not too much of a stretch to think of Doves as the last of the Factory bands,
despite their never having recorded for the label. But it bears noting that Doves
are at their best when they remember that a little Manchester Grey goes a long
way, and opt to use a broad spectrum of colors.