Review by Sean Westergaard
Dr. Dog have been steadily refining their sound since the unexpected success of Easy Beat, and Fate continues that trend. They've still got all the right classic rock moves, clever production ideas, and the ragged-but-right vocals and bouncy bass of Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken's tough guitar and sweet vocals. It sounds much like We All Belong, but this time out there are also some really nice string and horn arrangements and a bit more utilization of studio production. But a nice studio can be a double-edged sword. The songs sound great, but at times it seems that the detail and adornment are more important than the songs (most noticeably on the opener, which is nearly swallowed by backing vocals). The sound effects that link the songs and clumsy tape edits seem a tad forced (as if to replace some of the genuine weirdness on some of Easy Beat), and some of the titles and lyrical themes seem recycled from We All Belong. That being said, Fate is still a thoroughly enjoyable album from a fine band.
[Park the Van; 2008]
Dr. Dog have never released an album called Do You Like Rock Music? and I suppose that recent actions taken by British Sea Power ensure they never will. But that question always feels implied in the Dr. Dog experience-- just ask anyone who's not picking up what this Philly fivesome is throwing down and is subsequently accused of not digging "real music, mannnnn." And maybe their version of "realness" triggers an unfortunate sense of self-loathing, because "Beatles-esque" has for so long been the preeminent last-resort adjective for critics-- virtually meaningless, undeniably lazy, avoided at all costs. Fate is the fifth straight time Dr. Dog has made it abundantly clear that they're not gonna make it any easier on us.
At the very least, Fate is something of a survivor album: the saliva's long been dry from Kelefa Sanneh's sloppy tongue kiss of a profile in The New York Times and the band isn't exactly selling out arenas, so backlash can only be wielded by the extremely petty. Besides, far shittier bands have come along since that time with a similar sound and bigger sense of entitlement (file under: Kids, Cold War). More importantly, Dr. Dog have been gradually able to amp up their budget to record the album they "were destined to make," sounding like they've done something other than going straight to Maxell tapes. Ironically for a band whose rep was made on its live shows, this spit polish does Dr. Dog huge favors. On last year's relatively posh, 24-tracked We All Belong, their ear for sonic simulacra was impressive: the full-bodied and well-placed harmonies suggested a band far less amateur than they were willing to put on, organs trilled modestly, and the tightly-mic'd drums of Juston Stens were a dead ringer for Ringo St... goddamnit, see what I meant in the first paragraph?
All that said, Fate still manages to be a master class in illusory "good" songwriting. The bulk of it is so fenced into classicist templates-- chamber-y pop meets maximum R&B with the occasional smidge of "tasteful" gospel/parlour games ("Hang On") that, even when merely competent, it can still win over those unimpressed with all that punk and hip-hop riff raff of the past three decades. While Fate was rolling, I thought I'd be able to tell you about how delicious the descending melody of "The Old Days" is, or how their stabs at Bonzo Dog Band irreverence manages to come across as genuine. The problem is, once it's over I can hardly remember how any of it went.
Fate is actually stronger for having a viscosity suitable for sliding in one ear and out the other, because the more memorable moments are the worst, due in large part to the insufferable anachronisms of dueling vocalists Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken. During the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" jazzmatazz of "The Ark", Leaman bemoans, "God, he called for rain/ So I built an ark but no rain came/ I was ashamed," before he goes off the rails during a similarly AAA-rhymed rant about war (it's bad!). "The Beach" is about as much fun as you'd expect an environmental plea from these guys would be (and, oh man, that "fixing a hole..." bit). And amidst the slouching piano rag of "From", Leaman waits for the "choo choo train" in, of all places, the "choo choo rain."
I guess it wouldn't be fair if we didn't at least consider the possibility that Dr. Dog are the subject of a double standard because their influences aren't novel-- bands like Cut Copy, No Age, Hercules & Love Affair, and Fleet Foxes are also obviously indebted to a specific period of time, and they seem to do fine around these parts. But like their fellow Philly-retro-author-cause c้l่bre Marah, Dr. Dog often view their predecessors like museum pieces instead of inspiration, only these guys are probably too shook to consider some sort of disastrous about-face like Float Away With the Friday Night Gods. Plus, the overly serious takes on religion and politics, combined with Leaman and McMicken's tendency to project their voices past "Hey Jude" huzzahs into soul papa smarm ("Army of Ancients", amongst others) and "I gave my love a cherry" sobriety, make you wonder exactly how much credence to put into the idea that "they're just having fun." Maybe, this is the kind of thing that will ultimately sound better half-heard at an Indian summer BBQ or even live, but until Dr. Dog realizes what would've resulted if their idols just reheated the past as unambitiously as they do, forget all those Beatles and Beach Boys namedrops and stick with "average white band." No caps.
Ian Cohen, July 25, 2008