Early on in its development, the knock on Dots Not Feathers was "indie-rock meets the cast of Glee." It wasn't an insult, at least not totally — group harmony isn't anything to scoff at — but that perception suggested that the band's technical brilliance stood in place of real heart and soul. (The band's Under Cover Weekend performances as A-level legends Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson only underlined that gap.) The intervening years between albums brought on some lineup shifts, but it gave the band time to right its internal compass. On Dolphin World, leader Stephen Baier has written ten moody love songs, which his bandmates dress in vocally driven, R&B-flecked pop.
It speaks to the DNF's gentle sense of propriety that the slight feedback at the end of the lovely, loping "Catherine" — a short song about secretive, somewhat unrequited love that sparkles as it stomps — does not turn into a blowout, cathartic squall. You don't listen to this band for raw rock action; the protagonists of these songs take their romantic lumps and turn the hurt into hand-claps and sing-alongs. Even the full-throated chorus of "Timid Dolphin" sounds nominally like a threat but brims with Up with People brio, featuring muted trombones and disco piano crescendoes. Credit the production from Benton Park's Shock City Studios for the album's pop-slickness and the mastering work of Nashville's David Vandervelde for preserving some of the rough edges and vintage tones.
As the band has evolved, it has picked up little nuggets from the indie-pop playbook; whatever elements of folk music that DNF deployed earlier in its career has been subsumed into big, glossy pop. Plucky, Vampire Weekend-inspired guitar lines dominate, here breezily deployed by Baier, and glitchy, 8-bit synth tones are sprinkled liberally. At times, when Jessica Haley and Katie Brooking combine their vocals, the effect is that of a streamlined Dirty Projectors song. On opening track "Timid Man," the two burst around Baier's tenor-like fireworks amid jazzy guitar chords and shifting time signatures. At various points on Dolphin World, Baier hands the lead vocals over to his bandmates, but it's on those songs that the wall of artifice appears. Baier's voice has both the nimbleness and the weight to sell these songs; playing alongside a crack pop band is the icing on the cake.
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