Review by Heather Phares
Lots of late-2000s indie bands boast archaic and/or exotic influences, but few use them with the energy and creativity that the Dodos do on Visiter, their first officially released album. Country-blues fingerpicking meets West African Ewe drumming meets metal meets indie pop sounds like an all-too-wacky description on a band's MySpace page, but the Dodos turn these far-flung elements into delightfully natural-sounding music. What holds it all together is Meric Long and Logan Kroeber's strong pop sensibilities -- that's "pop" in the sense of memorable melodies and ear-catching hooks, because the Dodos' songs are too full of ideas to stick to a verse-chorus-verse format for very long. Visiter gets off to a simple, almost shy start with "Walking," which shows off Long's boyish voice (it sits somewhere between Ben Gibbard and Paul McCartney). Then the album really takes off with "Red and Purple," which crashes in on toy pianos and Kroeber's extravagantly syncopated drumming, creating a massive backdrop for the song's limpid melody and vocal harmonies. Visiter rarely lets up from there, coming in such a rush of vibrant words, melodies, and rhythms that it often feels like one ever-changing song. That makes highlights difficult to pick -- although the gleeful "Fools" and "Jodi," which sounds like a timeless folk song revved up to modern-day speeds, are among them. Though the Dodos play mostly acoustic instruments, they generate a lot more energy than many plugged-in bands, and with their rapid dynamic shifts, at times they even rock harder, too (that's where the metal influence comes in). It's a good thing the band only has two core members, since Long and Kroeber have so much going on already that there isn't much room for many other sounds or players. They push and pull against each other, adding the same creative spark and tension to snippets like "Eyelids" that they do to the aptly majestic final track "God?." Long's guitars are especially inspired on "Paint the Rust," where his swift picking and snarling slide work sounds a bit like John Fahey or Jim O'Rourke after several pots of coffee, and on "Winter"'s delicate, descending guitar riff, which swirls and falls lightly like a flurry. Kroeber's drumming is often elaborate, but never too showy, especially on "Park Song," where he gives Long's rambling internal monologue a playful sense of purpose. That purposefulness never flags, even when the Dodos slow it down on wistful but not too-precious ballads like "Ashley," or take one turn too many on the seven-minute patchwork "Joe's Waltz." Visiter's experimental pop is so joyous and liberated-sounding that it's difficult not to get swept along in its wake.
To understand where San Francisco's Dodos are coming from, just check the weekend itinerary from their most recent visit to L.A. On a Friday, they did a campus show for USC students; but when a miscommunication foiled their next day's plan to play at the Smell-- the venue at the epicenter of the local scene-- they ended up joining a bill with Thee Oh Sees and the Crystal Antlers at a birthday party at the Silverlake Lounge, an intimate, cozy space where you can't see a thing if you're more than five feet from the stage. It's within those coordinates (campus-quad pop, art-punk, and communal, lo-fi folk) that their Frenchkiss debut Visiter exists; an acoustic-and-percussion duo at their core, Dodos manage to hit with a full-band force that's even more pronounced in their astounding live sets.
On Visiter, Dodos guitarist Meric Long alternates between fingerpicking and breakneck strumming while playing in confounding alternate tunings. Logan Kroeber's clattering, locomotive percussion (which includes shoes outfitted with tambourines) is every bit a lead instrument as Long's guitar, and a big reason the band's music has garnered comparisons to the less abstract moments of Animal Collective and the output of other new-primitivist bands like High Places and Yeasayer.
The first quarter of Visiter marries those impulses with fantastic results. The banjo playing and female harmonies on opener "Walking" echo Michigan-era Sufjan, but the connection ends at Long's stridently confident vocal delivery. That song immediately segues into the maniacal "Red & Purple", a bewilderingly worded love song accompanied by a toy piano and fuzzy bass. And after the brief "Eyelids" comes "Fools", which has been bouncing around the web in some form for months, and is fast becoming the Dodos' signature tune-- although it may soon be eclipsed by the rollicking, Feelies-esque "Jodi".
From that point on, Visiter alternates between longer, more improvisatory material and near-interludes, which can leave a slightly spotty impression on its first few listens. With more exposure, the record reveals the celebratory acoustics of Led Zeppelin III or a more song-oriented take on tourmates Akron/Family. Playing with infectious fervor, Long runs through tricky blues-boxing and molten slide riffs on the galloping "Paint the Rust" and the second half of the epic "Joe's Waltz".
Visiter's second half is anchored by "The Season" and "God?", two massive shapeshifters that help define the record. Long and Kroeber here don't seem wedded to power duo minimalism-- and it's intriguing to wonder how they could incorporate their backgrounds in metal, African Ewe drumming, and gamelan beyond a sense of rhythmic intensity. These possibilities could also make more streamlined, Magnetic Fields-like numbers "Winter" and "Undeclared" seem vanilla by comparison to some, but by making room for both, Visiter ends up being one of the most welcoming (and welcome) records of 2008 so far.
-Ian Cohen, March 21, 2008