“I’m in no pain” are the first words on Dollie Barnes’s new record, Caught in a Phase. Throughout the album, the theme of defiance resonates.
“A lot of these songs are like a therapy session for me, getting things off my chest. I’d like this record to be a record for other women,” says the group’s front woman, Haley Barnes. “To let them know that it’s okay to express their emotions when they’re sad, upset or angry and to harness those feelings. Like getting through a tough situation. Not giving into standards.
“The way I grew up, you had to be cheery and happy all the time and if you were sad and expressed it, it was frowned upon. I want women to feel empowered by it. I was done with the acoustic thing and wanted to just put everything out there as opposed to being shy and trying to be sweet. I’m at this phase in my life where I’m tired of being the sweet girl.”
On the first song, “Phantom Joke,” Barnes sings of a long, boring summer “making plans with fictional characters” and asks who she can summon as if she has been through something. She only gives the tail end of the story; for the rest you have to listen to the record. Most of the songs are rockers, in contrast to her earlier work with acts such as Ancient Cat Society and Buxton, as well as her own solo project, Haley Barnes.
When we met recently to talk about the record, she talked about Fleetwood Mac as the main influence on the record, which is clear to hear. “I was listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac and we ended up going in that direction with the recording,” says Barnes. “The drums had a ’70s tuning to them and that was our vision. Just very ’70s. I was also listening to a lot of Françoise Hardy and a lot of Paul McCartney while writing. I also watched a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies that summer.”
The music has that expansive quality, and the vocal interplay between Dollie and Austin Sepulvado makes the ’70s influence more apparent. The record is also full of questions like “Who should I summon?” “How can I help you?” and “Doesn’t it matter?” which are never fully answered, giving the songs their longing quality. Since touring as a member of Buxton for 2012’s Nothing Here Seems Strange, as well as being a member of the three-piece Ancient Cat Society, Barnes has been sharpening her songwriting skills and finally has a record to match. “Don’t Fall Asleep” is another rocker, a paranoid ode to overthinking. “Chandelier” is a tale of a suffocating relationship and two lovers slowly realizing the relationship has run its course. “Doesn’t It Matter” is an ode to experiencing self-doubt while trying to keep sane.
Throughout Caught In a Phase, that theme repeats itself. The song shimmers and beats with ripping guitars and a pulsing bass. As the end soloing fades out, “Weighted” begins; Barnes concedes it’s an ode to her dog.
“I was living in Austin and had driven home to Houston for Summer Fest when I stopped at a flea market and found her and ended up not going,” she recalls. “She kind of pulled me out of my terrible situation in Austin and helped me get into the mind-set of going out and doing my own thing. After I got her, it wasn’t too much longer before I moved to Waco to finish school.”
The second half of Caught In a Phase starts with a crowd favorite, the dark and moody rocker “How Can I Help You?” The song plunges us into a relationship during its darkest times with lines like “you would lock me in the other room” and “all the years spent, making your bail.” It also might be the hardest rocker of them all. The beat is fixed and almost mechanic, the bass thumping, and the guitars dark. (“The light that propels you, drags you backwards” is probably my favorite line of the album.)
“Apple” is another slow one that builds to a powerful chorus; it’s the sad sister to the more sinister “How Can I Help You?” Unrequited love seems to be a constant throughout the record. “Bated Breath” follows as a third-person perspective on just that. “Does it tear your heart to speak her name?” Dollie sings. “Taking all day” is a slow ambient take on the mundanity of things like making the bed while other questions linger. The song starts slow but builds into a solid groove. “Senses” comes next, a rocker about not fitting into expectations and struggling with surrounding pressures.
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“It’s about the way I grew up and the school that I went to, and the idea was you go to college and you meet someone and you ‘have a ring by spring,’” Barnes says. “A lot of these girls would go off to college and do that, and that’s cool, but I felt stuck in that box and didn’t want to be in it. That song is about me feeling like an outsider. It’s written from the viewpoint of those girls doing other things and me doing my thing and feeling like an outcast. The song is about, hey, it’s okay to be different.”
The last song of the record, the title track, has an almost doo-wop feel. The only lighthearted song on the record, it gives an open ending to this story. “Tommy [Tom Lynch] helped me write the last song. It’s hard to write a happy song without making it hokey,” Barnes says. “It’s a hope for a new beginning.”
Caught In a Phase has an almost cathartic quality, but it realizes its own transitory nature. The last song is about learning to love again, or maybe it’s the beginning of another story — one that reminds us that an end and a beginning can be one and the same.
Dollie Barnes will release Caught in a Phase 8 p.m. Friday, February 17 at Rockefeller’s (3620 Washington) with Galveston indie-rockers El Lago and local favorites Young Mammals. The band will also perform at Cactus Music (2110 Portsmouth) at 3 p.m. Saturday, February 18.