There is a skinny two-lane road that heads into Scotland from Newcastle along the upper East coast of England. Every 10 miles or so there are signs reminding drivers how many road deaths have occurred over the past year: “Warning! 132 deaths this year. Do not pass!” In October 2001, Dolly Varden was speeding north on this roadway, late for a gig in Berwick-upon-Tweed, when a large, slow-moving farm vehicle pulled in front of their “self-drive”van. That’s the moment they had their collective nervous breakdown.
Dolly Varden had been working nonstop together for 6 years at that point with things steadily building. They’d made three albums and the newest, The Dumbest Magnets, was getting unexpected airplay on the BBC and attention from the British press. In August 2001 the band traveled to Nashville from Chicago to record their follow-up album with ‘Magnets’ producer Brad Jones. They arrived home in September to find that their studio was broken into and they’d lost some prized guitars, amps and recording equipment. And then 9-11 happened. Like everyone else they felt a like they’d been kicked in the stomach and stood stunned and wondering about the future. 10 days later the band boarded a plane for London.
After pulling themselves together and finishing their UK tour Dolly Varden came home again and hit the ground running. Forgiven Now was released to stellar reviews and the band did cross-country tour dates with Jay Bennett, Josh Rouse, Andrew Bird and Jesse Sykes, in addition headlining shows in the Midwest. In August Matt and Mike both became new dads, so the musicians agreed it was time for a well-earned break.
Over the next year and a half the band members remained active. Diane and Steve made a limited edition CD called Duets and did 3 overseas tours. Mark made a solo record called My Record Player inspired by the rock and pop he loved growing up, and Steve made a solo record reminiscent of early 70s soul and acoustic pop called, Sweet Is The Anchor. Diane focused on painting – her artwork has been on 4 of 5 of Dolly Varden’s albums – and her work was shown in New York, Chicago and Miami.
It took Mark’s brother, Scott, to get everyone back in the studio again. Scott had been a long-time Dolly Varden fan, contributing in some way to each of their albums. In early 2004 He’d just finished building a recording studio south of Chicago and he convinced everyone to come by. That first session went well. Even though the band hadn’t played together in a long time everything fell into place naturally. The collective intuition born from years of rehearsing, recording and touring was alive and well for the five musicians, and the joy of playing music together came back as a welcome rush. They all started meeting at Scott’s once a month as Dawson wrote new material. In mid 2006, after enough songs had been tracked, chosen and edited, the band sent everything down to Matt Pence (Centro-matic, American Music Club) in Denton, Texas, for mixing. Pence was chosen because of his ability to bring out the new harder-edged sound of the recordings while still maintaining the lyrical strengths of the band.
The songs on The Panic Bell are filled with images of Dawson’s struggle to hold onto his band and his hope in a world filled with violence and confusion. The opening track, “Complete Resistance” sings of “one million foreheads coming over the ramparts in wave after wave” to an All Things Must Pass-like fuzzy groove while “All Gonna Change”, talks of lowering the panic bell to a big Fleetwood Mac-like crescendo of voices. The two-part harmony between Dawson and Christiansen that Dolly Varden is known for is all over this record, but the songs are driven by tougher guitars, bigger choruses and spontaneous abandon.