For an album that “refers to dreams in their many forms—lucid, feverish, aspirational, broken, or realized,” the third full-length by John Davis’ Title Tracks sure knows how to find you in your wide-awake places. Like the band’s previous two records, Long Dream is an insistent, anthemic tour through its songwriter’s impeccable taste, another influence-transcending pastiche of the ’60s garage, ’70s power-pop, ’80s jangle-pop songbook. Has a D.C. songwriter ever been better at inducing head nods than John Davis?
That particular specialty of the Davis arsenal—those gem-like pop songs—hasn’t changed, only now he’s using it to Trojan-horse some slightly heavier (and occasionally trippier) shit. Six years ago, when Title Tracks released its glimmery and taut debut It Was Easy, Davis swam confidently through his sound’s sea lanes, keeping most of his sentiments—lyrics like “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, you’re looking for a steady love”—taut and teenage-sized and simple. A year later, the band’s second and best album, In Blank, was harder and faster and clangier, but maintained those glistening melodies beneath the grit. The songs on Long Dream aren’t any less catchy, and in some cases the language strikes the ear as just as straightforward. But whether it’s weighing the road foreseen against the road taken or exploring more nocturnal places, there’s something more menacing haunting him at night
“Low Cool,” the album’s opener, may have some Raspberries and Flamin’ Groovies and La’s in its DNA, but it gets a lot less decodable from there. “Low cool, armor is heavy/ Set it aside as soon as you’re ready,” Davis sings, and he could have in mind an exhausting veneer erected to fend off adversaries, or a more interior partition. The shimmering “Peaceful Uses,” with its heaven-scratching melodies, is addressed to a “prophet of the obvious” whose “time is up,” while the narrator is “trying out a new design that mutes anxiety”; these are songs about finding comfort and grace after a sense-scrambling rough patch, candy-wrappered as pop confections. “Protect Yourself” at first seems like a familiar negotiation with the encroachment of middle age, but it’s elevated by Davis’ knack for the slightly askew metaphor—“no one helps you to paint your lines”—and his impeccable ear for garage-hewn grace.
Elsewhere, though, that hard-attained wisdom only gives way to something closer to despair: “Tell me how to change this atmosphere, mirrors darkest when they’re clear,” he sings in “Empty Heavens,” a pleading ballad that contains a few of the musical lessons Davis worked through in Paint Branch, his misty folk duo with his former Q and Not U bandmate Chris Richards. It’s a remarkable mode for the band, which has never been tighter (and is rounded out by longtime bassist Michael Cotterman and drummer Elmer Sharp). I’d clamor for more of it, but then there are the rippers, like “I Don’t Need to Know,” a careening, cathartic refusal to play ball, and “Circle You,” which somehow feels like late-’60s baroque pop filtered through the road-warrior punk of late-’80s X (or better yet, D.C.’s Three, which Title Tracks has covered).
But no note on Long Dream strikes truer than the closer, “False Awakening,” which seems to cram all of Davis’ talents into a single track, and, like both album and song title suggest, indicates that no matter what we dream we end up in one place. “Do your earthly remains know the you they contained, or don’t they care that the future is over,” he sings, “and alone you will bowl, you suburban soul, among the rise and sprawl that drove you.” Like so much of the album, it’s rousing in its delivery and unsettling in its message: that we can never quite untangle what we dream and who we are.