Imagine that creating an album is like building a neighborhood of tract homes. Each piece is composed from a similar blueprint, rotated a few degrees for the sake of variety. Only after they’ve been modified over time does each home—or, in this case, song—begin to take on a shape of its own.
The supremely talented singer/songwriter and former X frontman John Doe grapples with finding a unique sound on his newest record, Dim Stars, Bright Sky. Doe has stripped his songs down to the essentials, in a semi-acoustic album filled with ballads alternately moody and wistful. A poet as much as he is a songwriter (in the early days of X, Doe met former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek at a well-known L.A. poetry workshop), Dim Stars is filled with evocative images and five-minute narratives. There is more than a hint of wistfulness on tracks like "Employee of the Month," where Doe sings about giving up "drinking and driving away."
Like his punk-rock colleague Elvis Costello, Doe has also introduced several collaborators—Dim Starsfeatures guest vocals by Juliana Hatfield, Aimee Mann, Jakob Dylan and Rhett Miller, to name a few. He doesn’t, however, exploit these talented young musicians nearly as much as he could, and their added vocals don't have nearly as much impact as you'd expect. John Doe’s distinctive voice is a blessing and a curse: his lyric composition and singing style make him completely unique, but the acoustic coffeehouse sound can make it difficult to distinguish one track from another. His most successful cuts are those that open into full rock songs, where Doe can apply the powerful combination of melancholy, resignation and just a hint of that old rage.