Dolorean Takes the Slow Road
Alex James [CLA '99] is going places. - The trip thus far from highly recruited soccer prospect to singer-songwriter praised in The New York Times has been artistically invigorating, though not particularly swift.
"It's like an ongoing process of finding out who you are," James says. "You graduate from college with a degree in writing and move to Portland with all these ideas - and a sense of entitlement. That changes after a while."
James, 26, drives a truck for a wine distributor by day ("I get a lot of song ideas while driving around," he says). He's also the key man in Dolorean, a Portland band that got a recent shot in the arm with a contract from the North Carolina record label Yep Roc and some glowing ink in the Times.
While growing up in Silverton and attending high school there, James was a jock who took a liking to music when groups such as Mudhoney, Nirvana and Soundgarden were getting big back in the early '90s.
"I'd listen to Willie Nelson, Simon and Garfunkel and stuff like that around the house," James says. "In high school, I started getting into these Seattle bands. Then I kind of moved away from being a jock and started hanging around theater people."
After landing a role in his high school's production of "Godspell," James began going to "hootenannies" thrown by the folks running the theater department, who were also active in the local Roman Catholic church.
"These guys were really into folk music," James recalls. "We'd sing Beatles songs, Bob Dylan, Mama and the Papas. ... Some of it was corny, but they had chord books lying around, and that's how I learned to play guitar."
James went to Willamette University on a soccer scholarship, but gradually his desire to write and play music superseded his athletic ambitions.
Finally, with degree in hand, he moved to Portland a few years ago and hooked up with members of the Standard, a local band signed to Chicago's Touch and Go label. With keyboard and arranging help from the Standard's Jay Clarke and some recording with bassist Rob Oberdorfer, James developed his songwriting style and found his voice.
"There are some songs that I recorded early on that make me cringe," he says. "But there were others that led me to believe I was going in the right direction."
The bulk of "Not Exotic," Dolorean's debut full-length album, was recorded at Larry Crane's Jackpot Studio under the supervision of local producer and engineer Jeff Saltzman. Through some connections in the Standard, James signed a two-album deal with Yep Roc. But the cherry on the sundae was still to come.
In the Nov. 9 edition, New York Times writer Kelefa Sanneh noted that James and his band are part of "the legacy of the late Elliott Smith: a generation of indie-rock songwriters ... using their own ramshackle voices to sing their own stories of creeping sadness and fleeting joy."
Sanneh further describes "Not Exotic" as "a wild, passionate album."
James admits he didn't see that one coming. "It's really great to get that write-up," he says with a reasonable measure of pride. "It will probably open doors that weren't even there before."
"Not Exotic" is an austere but evocative record full of music that sits somewhere on a lost highway between Smith's tuneful melancholy and Wilco's weedy experimentalism. The tempos are languid and stately, but the songs differ in mood and subject matter.
"Jenny Place Your Bets" depicts a crumbling relationship likened to a poker game, with the narrator getting cold feet because he's afraid to reveal his hand ("When I start losing is when I start cheating .../When you finally show your cards you'll be the only one who's playing").
"Hannibal, Mo." is the story of two young lovers who go for a midnight swim with the notion of drowning themselves rather than be torn apart. Unfortunately, only the girl drowns. It's rather like a murder ballad without the murder.
"I didn't really know about the depth of tradition with these kinds of songs," James confesses. "I was just experimenting with the narrative form in songwriting. I guess it's a suicide ballad."
James is excited about the possibilities offered by his band and about the new songs he's written, which are still mostly on the slower side of things. Despite a love of loud Seattle bands and obscure '60s garage-rockers such as the Misunderstood, he feels no inclination to pump up the speed or volume.
"I wouldn't even know how," James says. "I just got my first electric guitar the other day."
Alex James graduated from Willamette in 1999 with a degree in English.
This article was written by John Chandler and appeared in The Portland Tribune on December 5, 2003.
© 2003, The Portland Tribune. Reprinted with permission.