Powerful, dramatic and poetic story songs from the dark underbelly of the southeastern US – an impressive and arresting debut.
“Nothing good comes from Florida,” sings Thomas Dollbaum on the opening song from his debut album, ‘Wellswood.’ Well, the southeastern US artist has blown his theory out of the water, as the track, which is called ‘Florida,’ is stunning – a dark, atmospheric ballad that starts off acoustic and stripped-down, but soon builds, with backing vocals by Kate Teague and stabbing strings turning it into a Springsteen-like epic, but without the overblown, wailing sax and stadium rock bluster. Rather than the Boss’s “Tramps like us,” Dollbaum and his female companion in the song are “dogs like us,” who “were meant to run wild like wolves.”
Talking about ‘Florida’, he says: “I grew up outside Tampa, and before I had a car, I would take the bus into town and walk through the city to get to my friend’s neighbourhood from downtown. ‘Florida’ is about the people I knew who were down and out where I am from. It’s about getting into trouble, hanging out with strangers, and how a place can mould you into who you are, even as you are wishing you could do something or be somewhere else.”
It’s such a strong opener that there’s a danger that what follows it could be a let-down, but Dollbaum, who was born in Florida, but is now based in New Orleans, doesn’t let the side down. ‘God’s Country’ is chugging and infectious southeastern country-rock that sucks you in like a swamp: “Remember when I whispered in your ear with whiskey on my breath? A cottonmouth grew out your hair and bit me on the lip…”, and the wonderful ‘All Is Well’ has an unexpected lush, ‘70s soul groove, with a great, fuzzed-up, twangy guitar break, and Dollbaum singing falsetto.
‘Work Hard’ is delicate and intimate – a self-pitying, aching country-folk ballad with spacey effects and the feel of early Ryan Adams: “Why don’t you love me like you used to do? Why don’t you love me like you always did?” pleads Dollbaum.
He is a brilliant lyricist, with an MFA in poetry, and his narrative-laden songs are laden with superb imagery that’s powerful, often disturbing and, at times, literary. On ‘Strange’, he’s “In the back of a pick-up truck, riding high across the gruesome blue wind,” where “clouds hang on the backs of skies, that all your dreams just die in.”
He then muses, “One day they’ll put me in a pine box, with a brand new golden cross. Heaven’s just something I hold on to, to keep from being lost.” ‘Gold Teeth, which, with its heavy electric guitar and widescreen sound, has a touch of Neil Young about it, is similarly troubled and existential: “In the deepest darkest ocean you can hear 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.”
Dollbaum recorded ‘Wellswood’ in several sessions during the pandemic in New Orleans, in an old hotel suite that was turned into a studio – he currently lives there and works as a carpenter. It is one of the essential albums of the year.
His vocal style is often reminiscent of Damien Jurado, and he sings sad and self-destructive stories about the lost and lonely – there are hookers, drug addicts, victims of domestic violence and alcoholics littering these songs – but there’s beauty in his everyday tales of the American south. He perfectly captures the shadowy side of the Sunshine State.