Last year's album from The Dawn featured the seven-minute jam "Bring It All Home," which was for me the highlight of the record. It's safe to call that track foreshadowing, because the new release from the Quad Cities quartet led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Sean Ryan takes the idea and runs with it.

The four songs on At First Light range from just under eight minutes to a touch more than 11. None of the new tracks has the strong, clearly defined verse/chorus spine of "Bring It All Home," and that certainly makes it difficult to find handholds in the sprawling record; At First Light generally lacks the pop-song niceties that served as a springboard for the jams on the previous-album standout.

The vocal elements are sparse here - a late-arriving verse and chorus on opener "Let Me Down Easy," bookend singing on "Slow Motion," and a sustained vocal section on "Paradise." And while the lengthy instrumental explorations on the new album are never aimless, they are linear to the point of having little shape.

But let's take all that as a given rather than a flaw. I'll go a step further and say that by largely discarding formula and recursive structure, At First Light is a bold, committed departure for the band, and it's evident that these four tracks have been sharpened and polished: The compositions have a lean, focused elegance despite their lengths, and the whole is accessibly adventurous.

The instruments - particularly Ryan's guitars and Jordan VanOpdorp's keys - and the interplay among them are the show here as the band moves from genre to genre, hitting just about every guitar-based style outside of metal. You're never sure where you might be heading next, but the band moves ever forward with clear purpose.

"Let Me Down Easy" has a warm, joyful country funk at the outset, and Ryan seizes control of the track with his sturdy, quietly intense Americana-rock lead guitar. The tempo slows as a segue into the album's most-conventional section; the back half of the song stands on its own as a roots rocker. For fans of the band's previous work, "Let Me Down Easy" serves as a bridge into the less-expected remainder of the album.

The playfully bizarre title of the second track, the instrumental "Ticklelicious," serves as fair warning. The lockstep jazzy intro incorporates some country-style slide guitar, and that leads into some rock-guitar shredding over thick organ, and that leads to a pretty piano-dominated breather, which is eventually joined by Ryan's articulately precise playing - which ever-so-slowly builds in intensity toward a reservedly triumphant roots climax. The sections are clearly delineated, and each is compelling enough that it's nearly impossible to remember what came before - or how different and incongruous it was.

That's true, too, of "Paradise," with a U-turn into reggae after the infectious, slinky funk of its opening two minutes. The vocal section serves as a reminder, after "Ticklelicious," of how effectively Ryan's voice can anchor these otherwise wildly careening pieces. In the chorus is a hint of throbbing electronics, a subtle, discordant touch that augurs the track's final spacey freak-out.

Discord is given full voice at the height of closer "Slow Motion," with Ryan and VanOpdorp shifting easily from warmly embracing, intertwining solos to something that sounds like more than a minute of instrument-to-instrument combat, with drummer Josh Womack and bassist Dan Olds adding to intentional unpleasantness. As the song returns to its sleepy openings, the band sounds deservedly spent.

As much as I like At First Light from moment to moment, I hope it doesn't mark the beginning of a jam-band phase for The Dawn. The album is loaded with good ideas and sterling performances, and it's hard to imagine a more robust expansion of the band's sound. But it's similarly difficult to conceive of this path remaining fruitful.

With a fuller range ably demonstrated, I'd love to see what Ryan and company can put together by translating this impressive breadth into a collection of more-conventionally-structured songs.

The Dawn will perform a CD-release show at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue, Rock Island; on Saturday, October 31. The show also features Earth Ascending and Bottoms Up Quad City Burlesque. Cover for the 9 p.m. show is $6.

For more information on The Dawn, visit

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