The band Dr. Dog is in a weird place these days. Their last two albums, Fate (2008) and Shame, Shame (2010), received widespread critical praise after their previous three albums were coined as hackneyed attempts of neo-Beatles nostalgia. So what comes next? An experimental noise album? Loop samples? At least a duet with Feist, right?
Not here. Be the Void (2012) screams recidivism as a return to pre-Fate days. It lacks the blues infusion (“Shame, Shame”) and taut melodies (“The Breeze,” “Stranger”) that make Fate and Shame, Shame their most honest and vital albums. In its lack of structure and cohesion from track to track, the album is a return to form for Dr. Dog.
Dr. Dog’s earlier albums never solidify the band’s sonic identity – 2005’s Easy Beat isn’t so much pastiche as mimicry of seventies’ washed-out pop albums; 2007’s We All Belong paces itself like an alligator wading through a psychedelic lazy river – and therefore the band can’t separate their musical influences from their fingertips.
While the opening track of Easy Beat, “The World May Never Know,” tastes like a sonic blast of lo-fi honey, its piano and drum lines almost replicate the bass line and drums of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (1968) but slowed down a microsecond. However, it’s an intoxicating tune if you can put the image of Corky smiling out of your mind. Furthermore, neither Toby Leaman nor Scott McMicken writes compelling or immediately arresting poetry. On the chorus of “My Old Ways” (We All Belong) McMicken sings, “I never want to ever go back to my old ways again / Cheating and creeping around / … / Leaving the dead on the ground.” Very few lyricists get away with lyricism this trite; Roy Orbison and Christopher Owens come to mind, but they can because of their disparate and aching vocal capabilities and exterior qualities (both Orbison and Owens are innately endowed with physical strangeness). The members of Dr. Dog seem like some college dudes whose old ways probably consisted of partying too hard and making some bad decisions, which makes it harder for the conveyance of their generic lyricism to be compelling.
Shame, Shame marks a departure from their lyrical nakedness. It also infuses a necessary dose of blues and self-awareness. The title track serves as a great example to why “My Old Ways” lacks vitality. It fine tunes its sentiment with the longing of a steel guitar, Leaman’s best McCartney guttural-belt (as heard on tracks like “I Got a Feeling” (1970)) and self-aware lyrics that address earlier transgressions: “Shame, Shame /… / I didn’t know what to do, I was losing myself, turning into you / … / I was really undone, the life I used to live seemed so useless now / … / You know you made me do it and no, I don’t regret it, I repent.” Is this Leaman’s attempt to absolve Dr. Dog’s overt thievery and finally move forward as a separate and singular entity?
On “I Only Wear Blue” McMicken pleads, “And I’m losing my voice barking up the wrong tree / When you can’t be yourself there’s just too much to be.” This song seems like McMicken’s own attempt to address Dr. Dog’s familiar sound. Later comes the catharsis: “Let’s get on with it, we don’t have too much time / I don’t want to stay here where the sun don’t ever shine / … / We’re just too many fractions of a part / Excuse me if I only wear blue.” He both admits to and excuses his band of the plagiarism of which hyper-vigilant music-media outlets have accused them for so long. Is this a message acknowledging their critics? Is Shame, Shame an album Dr. Dog needed to make – a necessary purge of upbeat folk-jams through blues – to get on with life and get back to making fun and whimsical albums like Be the Void?
It seems natural that Dr. Dog would attempt to further distance themselves from their past lives even more by making a clean break from the genre with which they’re so enamored. In a way, Be the Void does that. While it returns to the album form of their early days – loose, unfocused, and fun – its musical inspiration seems new. “These Days” sounds like a fusion of 80s’ dance rhythm, the uninterrupted base line of Joy Division’s “Transmission” (1979), and a lead guitar from any Strokes’ tune. The only singular element is Leaman’s loose vocal deliverance. It compels me to ponder if the myth of Dr. Dog’s plagiarism sticks too deeply in my musical brain. Do any of the above references even exist in “These Days”? Despite the many informants of the track, “These Days” grooves as coolly and smoothly as the Strokes’ “Reptilia” (2003).
There are other tracks that stick out. The opener, “Lonesome,” lazes about to the groove of a jangly steel guitar and presents an image of a pack of bluesies plucking away on a porch near the bayou. Listening to the circling beat of “Get Away,” I imagine the grimy bar rockers kicking off their leather boots to play an oceanfront set out to sea – the harmonizing vocals take shape in the form of birds swooping and diving as they float above the water. In “That Old Black Hole,” McMicken reverts back to his tendency of leaning on euphemisms and metaphors for lack of substantial lyrical paucity. However, the melody and slithery sonic texturing make it a very enjoyable listen.
Let me put it this way: you wouldn’t be remiss to listen to the album if you enjoy listening to music. Dr. Dog seems happy being the gateway drug for exploration into past genres. Finally having addressed their sonic familiarity on Shame, Shame, we can take Be the Void for what it’s worth. It seems like Dr. Dog loses its lover in Shame, Shame and moves on to something new, which is sexy and interesting but ultimately unimportant. If you like the loose and oftentimes lethargic sound of Dr. Dog’s earlier albums, then you’re sure to get enough kicks out of their new one. I imagine that it’s a great listen while drinking and playing horse-shoes at a backyard party on a hot summer day.