Thursday, April 8, 2010

Review: Dr. Dog's Shame, Shame

I had the pleasure of talking to Zach Miller, pianist for Philadelphia retro-pop act Dr. Dog, last summer just as his band was about to record its sixth full length album in New York's Catskill Mountains.

In our conversation, I asked Miller if the task ahead of the band - to build upon its enormous success in the last five years, which has seen the quintet steadily rise from Philly's best kept secret to national darling - was daunting. What could the band possibly have in store for the follow-up to 2008's Fate, a career breakthrough that combined modern indie sensibilities with the classic pop of yesteryear?

Miller's reply, after hesitating for a moment to find the right word: "Directness."

At the time, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the answer, given my appreciation for the band's subtle sonic and lyrical touches that have come to enhance - if not define altogether - what Dr. Dog is about.

But eight months later, after spending copious time with Shame, Shame, the album Miller and his band mates wound up recording and another exceptional addition to an already sterling discography, I can't begin to think of a better descriptor.

Shame, Shame, released on Tuesday via Anti- Records, is direct in a way Fate, and 2007's We All Belong before it, were not. Its 11 songs speak to us like a friend would, without pretense or distraction, and are transmitted to us not through the funnel of studio wizardry, but right from the band's mouths and amps to our ears.

For the rest of the review, continue reading after the jump:

It was easy on past releases to get lost in the words of co-singers Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman, who coated their lyrics with enough ambiguity that they could mean different things to different listeners. But Shame, Shame is the two writers' most outwardly autobiographical album yet, leaving little to interpretation.

Take a song like "Shadow People," McMicken's vivid account of a desperate night in his West Philly neighborhood, an anthem set to Velvet Underground chords.

"The neon lights on Baltimore / every shadow's getting famous / In some backyard, in some plastic chair / Hoping these cigarettes will save us," McMicken sings, as he searches his street and city for any kindred spirits who might feel the same as he does.

In "Jackie Wants a Black Eye," he finds them in Jackie and John, two bar mainstays perpetually stuck in sad situations, and bonds with them over their mutual anguish. In a perverse, but strangely satisfying consolation, McMicken assures his friends they're "…all in this together / as we all fall apart / swapping little pieces / of our broken little hearts."

Joined by the real-life Jackie and John on the song's powerful coda, McMicken preaches those words as if they were the lonely man's gospel. Sure, it might sound uplifting for these souls to be alone together, but at the end of the day, they're ultimately still alone.

In fact, much of Shame, Shame deals with that isolation, a theme Leaman has chalked up to spending too much of his life on the road and the realization that it's primarily been of his own accord. Leaman's songs on the album deal with the pain of leaving his friends and family at home for long stretches of time (the beautiful country ballad "Station") and confronting himself about the person he's turned into on tour, while the rest of the world moves along without him (the sublime and aptly-titled opener "Stranger").

But don't think Shame, Shame is all gloom and doom. Far from it. The album carries on stylistically right where Fate left off: an exciting, at times euphoric, blend of 1960s and '70s pop with a current spin.

The band has been, ahem, dogged in the past for sometimes wearing its influences too heavily on its sleeve. It's near impossible to read a Dr. Dog review without seeing at least one of three musical benchmarks mentioned: The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Band.

That's not without reason. It's true: Dr. Dog sounds a lot like those bands. But does it matter when it pays tribute to them - and then expands on their sound - so well?

Go ahead. Spot the references. There are Brian Wilson's California harmonies lurking in the background on nearly every song, John Lennon's spirit and guitar tones on "Later" and a constant energy from the entire ensemble making Shame, Shame sound like a studio version of The Band's famed Last Waltz concert.

But Dr. Dog, under the tutelage of producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) also adds new weapons to its arsenal: a Motown backbeat on "Unbearable Why," a sly R&B groove on the title track and a fractured guitar breakdown at the end of "I Only Wear Blue," to name a few.

Few bands are able to take cues from the past and translate them to the present so effortlessly. Shame, Shame is the document of Dr. Dog continuing to do just that, while managing to shift its lyrical and aural focus from careful to candid at the same time.

Dr. Dog is in the midst of a national headlining tour. The band will come home to Philadelphia on May 13, when it plays the Electric Factory at 8 p.m.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I am continuously impressed by Dr. Dog. Their live energy is the most intense and satisfying of any band I have ever seen. I am fortunate enough to see them again next week and I am beyond excited!