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Ships Passing 

by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here's nothing even remotely Maldivian about Seattle's country rock nine-piece, the Maldives. The name's a nod to a chain of a thousand or so islands off India's southwest coast. The band, though, is all Northwesterners, centering on songwriter Jason Dodson. They play country rock, riveting, but straightforward. There's nothing islandish about them -- not even a squint of Jimmy Buffet's twangier moments. Nothing sub-continental either. No sitar. No ragas.





While it says nothing about who they are musically, the name does say quite a bit about where they -- and more specifically Dodson -- came from. It's cutesy and evocative with an appended "the," pretty much the standard naming schema for every indie rock band for the last two decades. Indie, turns out, is exactly where the Maldives started in 2002.





Dodson told Seattle Weekly in late 2006, "We started out doing this kinda Wilco or Flaming Lips-style indie pop, but to be honest, I'm just not good at writing those kinda songs." In an e-mail to us, he elaborated, "My voice, both vocal and in writing, just comes out naturally in a country vein." That realization led to soul-searching. Dodson at one point took the name and went solo, spending a year on the road before reforming the band. It made all the difference, he says. "If you have clear sense of sound and vision, you attract the most brilliant, and compatible people to work with."





It's been a period of intense exploration, Dodson says, and he's not cool letting the band's early work stand in for the new. "The old album doesn't really represent what we do now," he says via e-mail, explaining politely why there was no way in hell he'd want us listening to the old stuff. "Yr best bet is to listen to the stuff we posted today on MySpace."





This is a band living very much in the moment, cresting a wave of both popularity and creative output rarely seen since alt-country's mid-'90s heyday.





The result of all the turmoil is gorgeous. Dodson's lyricism is steeped in the mountains and backwoods, in the dreams and trials of the poor and exploited. It's run through with metaphors built around coalmine canaries and "hicky boys" wending out their lives in factory jobs. Rather than the impulse to write specific stories around individual characters, the way Uncle Tupelo did and Springsteen still does, Dodson often makes his stories broad and allegorical.





"And all the hicky boys dying down in iron town / making tiny ships with a needle and a crown," Dodson croons on "By the Wind. Sailor," a song about dreams literal and figurative. "'Lookee, Bruno,' I made the smallest one / sailing out of here to meet my maker."





It's a densely symbolic verse, more about general conditions among the working poor than about individuals. The sense of drudgery remains overwhelming, despite the lack of specificity. So is the sense that, even for the most skilled workers, the best reward one can hope for is a good, quick death and a spot in heaven. The place Dodson finds himself now is exactly where he wants to be. "Following yr muse, and finding yr voice are two different things," he writes. "Back then I was finding my voice. Now I'm following my muse."





The Maldives' move away from indie pop towards the '70s origins of country rock is just about the exact opposite of most other alt-country-rockish bands, including Spokane's Lafayette, which will open Sunday's show. Beginning life as Robert Dunn and the North Country, the band's name change came in advance of what front man Jared Dunn characterizes as a heavily Wilco-influenced style shift. One of the Maldives' newer songs, "Tequila Sunday," is a rollicking rock tune punctuated with spry pedal steel, a sound and tempo reminiscent of "The Flame," one of the North Country's oldest.





The Empyrean show Sunday, then, presents two ships passing in the stylistic night: one headed ever toward the vanishing origins of a neo-folk form, and one headed, perhaps irrevocably, away.





The Maldives with Zac Fairbanks & amp; the Booze Fighters and Lafayette at Empyrean on July 27 at 7 pm. $6. Call 838-9819.
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