Within five minutes of Portland indie folk band The Dimes' visit to the Tidings Café, vocalist Johnny Clay marveled at the framed Tidings front pages from years past on the back wall of the newsroom. Others pass them by without mention, and only notice the wall clock.
"Oh wow, this one's from 1876," Clay said, peering into the headlines of the 11th issue of the first year of Oregon's oldest newspaper.
Clay's fascination with all things history shines through every minute of the band's new album, "The King Can Drink the Harbour Dry," which takes twelve stories of 18th and 19th century Bostonian activists, and sets them to the lush, layered sounds of sixties folk music. This unique approach to songwriting makes The Dimes the first Tidings Café performer to have a concept album.
"As a group, I think we kind of like to geek out on stuff," guitarist Pierre Kaiser said. "Originally we got along because we sort of geeked out on sixties musicians. The Boston record [the band's early 2009 EP, from which the full-length album is based] was just a matter of transitioning that geek focus to people who lived two to four hundred years ago."
Thoughtful lyrics about Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony aside, the seven-piece band's songs are finely crafted on their own merits, taking influence from sixties groups such as Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles, and resembling 21st century folk-rock favorites like Iron & Wine and Death Cab for Cutie. That resemblance may be less than coincidental, as audio engineer Jeff Saltzman worked with those latter acts before working with The Dimes on "The King Can Drink the Harbour Dry."
"He's kind of a Portland staple, and so we were lucky enough to get to know him right when we were recording our second EP," Kaiser said, "It was the first time we had — the four of us at the time — had ever been in sort of a top-flight recording studio. He was the engineer on the project and we just kind of hit it off."
But their catchy songs don't come from studio trickery, and music fans can watch their Tidings Café performance of "The Liberator" for proof. The performance features four shakers, two guitars, a slide guitar, a bass drum, a tambourine and dueling melodicas, all working in harmony like a well-oiled industrial revolution-era machine. That the song was written about William Lloyd Garrison's influential Boston abolitionist newspaper only adds a layer of depth, and that they sing it behind a newsroom, even more so.
The idea for Clay to devote an entire record to Boston started with a single song about Kaiser's hometown and snowballed from there, even though Clay has yet to visit the capital of Massachusetts.
"Pierre thinks that I think of his hometown as the mythical city of Atlantis," Clay said.
"I'm excited for Johnny to go there, but part of me also wonders if he still thinks there's horsedrawn carriages over there," Kaiser joked.
"There's sort of a wanderlust or a wonder about a place you've never been. I think Boston is sort of a dream to you more than anyone else, and we all got caught up in that dream," Kaiser said to Clay.
Unlike most out-of-town bands, Ashland was The Dimes' destination, not a pit stop while passing through to a bigger city.
"This town is amazingly nice to us," bass guitarist Ryan Johnston said. Ten years ago Johnston was a Southern Oregon University student working at the Subway across from campus. Their manager, Ryan Wines, graduated from SOU in 2001.
The band also attributes their fondness for Ashland to Alex's, where they played to a packed house Saturday night. They played at the Ashland venue when they first started the band, and loved being there.
"The first time we played at Alex's, there was this real bond, like we had found our people," Kaiser said, "Everyone was like, 'Wow, that was one of the funnest shows we ever played.' It was kind of non-traditional for us because it's not like a rock club, I mean it's a bar and it's a restaurant and the band kind of plays in that corner area, but it just, it felt real."
For those who missed The Dimes' record release party, their album is available at its website www.thedimes.com and on iTunes.
Check out The Dimes' special acoustic performance of "The Liberator" at www.dailytidings.com and at www.connectashland.com/group/tidingscafe.