Album Review: Joel Sires — ‘Dog Years’

To paraphrase the famous Corinthians Bible passage, Joel Sires — songwriter and frontman for Cedar Falls band TWINS — set aside his “childish ways” for the songs on their last album, Dream On, out earlier this year.

That new maturity on record is a result of woodshedding new songs at solo acoustic shows starting after their 2016 album, Square America, came out. Those who saw those solo shows were able to watch a songwriter hone his craft.

Sires was approached by Cedar Falls hip-hop MC Sotr Caf to record on Seeder, a boutique label he had started.

“He had really connected to hearing me do those solo acoustic sets,” Sires explains in a chat. “I felt like the songs I had would work better with a small band behind them, so I just called friends that I knew could work fast and I would be excited to work with.”

Sires went to Chandler LTD in Shell Rock along with Seth Luloff (of Holy White Hounds, also producer on Dream On), who played drums, sang backup, arranged and engineered; Gram Howland (from SIRES) on bass; Ben Rendall from TWINS on keys; and Jacob Lampman on lead guitar. They recorded the songs live in the studio during one intense session on Aug. 8.

Four of these songs are collected as the EP Dog Years, Sires’ first solo release. The songs are not a dramatic swing stylistically from Dream On; in fact they seem like they could have been outtakes or demos. Where these songs differ is in the two bands.

Where Dream On carries the full bombast of electric guitars and driving drums on a lot of the songs, Dog Years is a stripped down affair focusing on Sires’ vocals and acoustic guitars. Think of it as the difference between the Springsteen backed by E-Street and the Springsteen on Nebraska.

The step-up-to-the-mic, live-take approach of the songs on *Dog Years* gives them a serenity and open space that allows the songs to breathe. Sires sounds relaxed, letting the songs unfold naturally. The results are the best vocals I’ve heard from him.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the opener, “Mexican Fireworks,” inspired by a pre-pandemic trip to Mexico with friends.

“I can smell the charcoal smoke / Hear the subwoofers rattling in trunks / Any Sunday at the basketball court // Stale scent of sweat in the air / From way downtown it’s clear / All my shots are hanging there / Sinking everything that leaves my hand”

This slightly-out-of-frame selfie shot of a day in the life pulls into focus an appreciation for the smallest moments. “Even a chump like me can get lucky sometimes,” he reflects. It’s a picture snapped seemingly eons ago, made even more bittersweet with current social distancing.

Maybe it’s due to the revisiting of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty I’ve done recently (they turned 50 in 2020), but I hear a lot of those albums in Dog Years. The folk and country over- and undertones of the songs are a blueprint that the Grateful Dead certainly helped establish. But more than that, Sires is coming into his own as a songwriter and, like Hunter and Garcia, is able to draw from human experience, crafting songs that are timeless and poignant, both of these times and not.

Dog Years will be available for pre-order in November.

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This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.