Dr. Dog: Dirty Analog Dreams
Sometimes, in the creative life of a rock band, there comes a moment of supreme direction-changing clarity. Usually, it happens when the atmosphere has soured, when artistic differences erupt and the status quo no longer serves. For Dr. Dog, the galvanizing moment of destiny rose out of relative tranquility.
After an extended run of tour dates, the famously boisterous Philadelphia five-piece found itself in a big studio in Atlanta, beginning work on a new album with producer Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley).
The first few songs were ready. The setting was chill. They jumped in with all the best intentions, says bassist and songwriter Toby Leaman: “It was totally cool; we had a lot of fun that week. It seemed like the record was on its way.”
Then the band went back out to finish the tour. After a few days away from the studio, both Leaman and the band’s other songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Scott McMicken, had the same thought: Things were just a bit too easy, too settled.
“We started debating what to do,” Leaman recalls, “and after a few minutes, it just came out: ‘Why work with anybody?’ We’d branched out with [2010’s] Shame Shame [which was partially produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith)] and learned a lot. We didn’t know what we might be capable of doing. We both realized we wanted to find out.”
“At the time, it felt like a dick move, to be honest,” McMicken says. “Of course, we didn’t want to create weirdness with Ben and we felt insecure about telling our manager and the label. But as soon as the idea was out there, it was instantly clear this was what we had to do. Very quickly it went from doubt to ‘we got this.’”
And then, just as quickly, the band repaired to its own studio, in a converted loft on an industrial-wasteland street in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Two months later, Dr. Dog had pretty much completed work on Be the Void, at once the most irreverently catchy and most deliriously weird set of songs that they have released to date.
Longtime fans may hear the new work as a continuation of the cheerful, scruffy, unpretentious pop worship that has been Dr. Dog’s meal ticket since 2005’s Easy Beat. But there’s a significant change in temperament: The band sounds like it is finally—and fully—owning their sound, embracing their potential for sweetness and also rawness, loving their quirks and many apparent contradictions. There’s wicked confidence oozing through the tracks.
In these songs, the irrepressibly goofy coexists with the transcendent, and hard-charging rhythm guitar attitude walks arm-in-arm with splendidly floral and unapologetically pretty vocal arrays. Sure, there’s skill involved in the reboot of classic rock and pop tropes. But what’s more striking is the heart: At the core of Be the Void is a conviction that has been only intermittently evident on previous works.
You sense that these accomplished scholars have tired of the class-clown antics and are finally getting around to believing in something and meaning it; they’ve abandoned the too-clever conceits of old in favor of howling confessions and existential cries and occasionally unsettling, or at least disarming, observations on what it means to be alive.
The instrumental touches augment this: The grooves are deeper, the guitars are more abrasive. For the first time, the band has created a studio record that approaches the supercharged energy and wild-eyed abandon of their live shows. Excuse the reach, but somehow Be the Void taught these guys how to fully Be Dr. Dog.
When you first enter Meth Beach, it looks like a Hollywood set designer’s vision for an indie band’s clubhouse-slash-workspace-slash-studio. A massive shrine to everything that’s lo-fi and analog and thriftstore chic, it’s a place where you could lose happy hours in the search of a perfect beautiful sound. Especially if you happen to play keyboard or guitar.
Tattered blue and purple parasols dangle from the ceiling, in assymetrical rings around a mirrored disco ball. (“[It] helps the mood,” McMicken says dryly.) Haphazardly hung Christmas lights outline the frame of the control room window. Against one wall are shelves with touring cases and stacks of drum hardware. A vintage Wurlitzer electric piano—one of two—leans on its side. Nearby, a pump harmonium waits, ready for air.
There are cables snaking all over the floor and mic stands positioned in a band-practice semicircle, with an electric space heater in the center of the room. A mascot-sized head of a white tiger sits on one stands and appears to be guarding a tall bass cabinet. What looks like a boombox from the early ‘80s is perched atop the vintage cabinet.
But this isn’t any ordinary boombox: Just underneath the massive handle, there’s a Casio-style keyboard. It’s got rhythms (cha-cha!) and a special “chord generator” feature. It makes plinking keyboardish noises as well as futuristic synthy noises, and allows the aspiring artist to record his performances on cassette. There’s even a microphone input. Most of America would regard the Fisher SC-300 as landfill food, but not Dr. Dog: Its strange keyboard sounds wormed their way into several Be the Void songs, and during tracking and mixing, the band relied on the plastic boombox speakers for playbacks.
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