First Impressions: Wellswood by Thomas Dollbaum

An honest-to-goodness poet (with an MFA to his credit) and construction worker, Thomas Dollbaum is as skilled at building with words as he is with his hands. On Wellswood, his debut album, he shows himself to be a unique and talented singer-songwriter. He blends a myriad of styles into character-driven songs, which trawl society’s shadows for inspiration. Think Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits and other street poets, or the Delines; like them, he crafts cinematic vignettes that resonate much the way the noir films of yore did. As he explains in the press release, “These voices are not of the world’s future leaders, not of people on television, but of sheetrock finishers, painters, roofers, and carpenters. They are deadbeat fathers, drifters, prostitutes, gamblers and drunks. They are the voices of the working class.”

The opening cut, “Florida,” is about his home state, which he apparently has a love-hate relationship with. “By reputation,” he says in the same release, “people move to Florida to run away from their problems, but instead of leaving them behind they bring the same problems with them. These are the people I grew up with, people struggling to start life over in a place promised as paradise.”

If you listened to the above clip, you’ll hear his vocals teeter across the expanding melody with the dexterity of a tightrope walker, while a safety net is provided by fellow singer-songwriter Kate Teague, whose backing vocals are the audio equivalent of a soft bed. Dollbaum, who now lives in New Orleans, also handles many of the instrumental chores throughout the eight tracks, as does producer Matt Seferian; Atticus Lopez keeps a steady beat on drums.

“Work Hard” delves deep into family drama and how he hopes to leave home like his father before him: “I got a two-tone car and I’m trying to leave this town, too/It’s not that I don’t want you, I’m just a man that can’t stay true.” Its power comes from its restraint.

“All Is Why,” released as a single a few weeks back, echoes the Eagles, Bee Gees (at their R&B best) and old-school Philly soul while painting a picture of a dysfunctional relationship. Unlike many such songs, the narrator recognizes that he’s as much to blame as her: “Some people need a woman to hold on to/Some people need that night train wine/I need both dear, because I’m selfish and unkind.”

“Gold Teeth” is another high point, with electric guitars slashing atop a taut rhythm, while Dollbaum unreels vivid wordplay about how one’s roots need not upend one’s life: “In the deepest darkest ocean you can hear the locomotion scream/and Anne Frank’s radio screams like it’s filled with kerosene/Wildfire speaks and spits like it’s covered in gasoline/and I’m living in the past and future and whatever’s in between.”

I should say that Wellswood is an album that benefits from repeated plays. I first heard it in January and, honestly, wasn’t sure what to make of it. Yet something brought me back, time and again, with each new spin unearthing something I’d missed before. (I now have the LP on order, which speaks for itself.) It’s a soulful slice of folk-rock, with a dash of blues mixed in for good measure. Give it a go.

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