Sunday, July 27, 2008
I first heard Dr. Dog at Bonnaroo three years ago. My response was a simple, "that was kinda good, a bit odd though..." I didn't know any Dr. Dog songs, I think my cousin and I picked the show out of the dozens playing that day because the name sounded weird and we didn't have a clue what they would sound like. They had shaggier hair then, bright-orange sun glasses and a decidedly lo-fi, tape-warped spin on their Abbey-Road-era-Beatles sound. In nearly every review of Dr. Dog's CDs, the writer either quickly caves and just calls them Beatlesesque, or spends a paragraph talking about how only lazy critics call new bands Beatlesesque - how the phrase has almost no meaning since most pop/rock has some roots in the Beatles, etc, - and then ends up calling them Beatlesesque anyhow. I didn't think much else about the Bonnaroo show until two years later when I saw them open for the Black Keys. I still didn't know any of the songs, but the new ones were even better than the old ones, and ever since each new release has been pre-ordered.
Dr. Dog's early records didn't sound like a band ripping off the Beatles, more like a bunch of Philadelphia kids with ear infections who grew up listening to the Beatles on a mono stereo. I heard someone say, and I co-opted the phrase, that their last album "We All Belong" sounds best on broken car speakers. It's a compliment. Dr. Dog's albums make you feel like a little kid, getting a ride home from the swimming pool in a station wagon without air-conditioning. AC would feel good in a Mercedes, but in a wood paneled Chevy Malibu wagon I'd rather have the windows down. Essentially, Dr. Dog's CDs turn me into a nostalgia whimpering puppy.
The band features two songwriters who alternate singing responsibilities. Toby Leaman has a gruffer/edgier voice and his songs are moving a little darker with each album. Scott McMicken's voice is the more warbly of the two, and his songs typically tend to be more hopeful. Released on Tuesday, "Fate" removes a lot of the dissonant tones and sloppy-is-a-virtue aesthetic of the early albums. It's a decidedly cleaned up effort. Almost too glossy in spots for my liking, this album sounds best on fully-functioning car speakers. But the strength of the band has always been in their melodies and harmonizing, not the gimmicky production and charming idiosyncrasies.
It starts out simple enough. Opening track "The Breeze" is mostly a one guitar, one voice affair, with some maraca mimicking the sound of a locomotive in the background, "chica-chica-chica-chica." The back of the liner notes fold out to a b/w picture of the band standing in front of an old train and overgrown tracks. Much of "Fate" deals with what the album title would suggest. Time passing, things fading, arriving at our final destination. On "From" the band actually sings about a "choo-choo train," a phrase no post-adolsecent should use, but I'm a sucker for the band, and their playfulness makes it work. Most of the other songs have the layered guitar lines, tinkering piano, bass and vocal harmonizing we have come to expect from a Dr. Dog album. "The Beach" might be the loudest/darkest song by the band to date - trash can drums, horror house organs, shouted vocals by Leaman and guitar with dirty style. Like any other Dr. Dog relase, "Fate" isn't flawless. Occasionally all the climbing background vocals and escelating melodies can become a bit irritating, but those moments are few and before long Dr. Dog returns to its old ways.