Review by Heather Phares
For Time to Die, the Dodos added a new member, electric vibraphonist Keaton Snyder, and worked with a new producer, Phil Ek. Despite these changes, the band's third album is surprisingly predictable, replacing the free-wheeling approach of Beware of the Maniacs and their breakthrough album, Visiter, with a slower, more polished approach that focuses on their melodies. "Troll Nacht" and "Acorn Factory" are so undeniably pretty they're impossible to dislike, but they don't necessarily connect the way the Dodos' earlier work did. What made the band's music exciting, particularly on Visiter, was the contrast of those pretty melodies with Logan Kroeber's intricate drumming, and the feeling that the Dodos' songs could -- and often did -- end up in completely different musical territory than where they started. And while the sound quality wasn't pristine, it gave a real sense of the space and energy around the band. That visceral edge and intimacy are missing from most of Time to Die, bringing the band closer to the Shins or Fleet Foxes (two bands Ek has also produced). Kroeber's drums are often buried, which adds to the overly groomed feel, and while Snyder's vibraphones add atmosphere to Time to Die's closing title track, they also contribute to the album's tamer feel, since there's nothing rougher to contrast with them. Songs like "The Strums" -- which has a vibraphone-and-guitars rave-up that feels more planned than spontaneous -- dominate the album, but the Dodos' wildness resurfaces occasionally. "Longform"'s winding melody and intricate picking recalls the ebb and flow of their earlier work; the galloping "This Is a Business" gives the band's drums and guitars equal time, and actually rocks out; and "Two Medicines" balances the album's more pop approach with the tension of the Dodos' earlier music, adding bustling vocal harmonies for good measure. Time to Die is far from a bad album, but unpredictability still suits the Dodos better than trying to fit into a more recognizable indie rock mold.
You could argue the wisdom of using something called "Fools" to sell a watery macrobrew, but when the Dodos' breakthrough song was used in a Miller Chill commercial, it went a long way towards illustrating what made its parent album Visiter such a treat-- Meric Long and Logan Kroeber kept a foot in the avant-garde with their astounding technical chops and an unvarnished recording of string buzz, drum rattle, and missed cues, all while keeping things grounded in a user-friendly acoustic pop format. At times, I wondered if I overrated it, but these days, I think it might be underrated-- if I told you Animal Collective-inspired music could be used to sell beer, what chance would you give it to turn out as good as the charmingly undecided Visiter?
Changes are afoot for this prototypical duo: Yet electric vibraphonist/percussionist Keaton Snyder isn't even the most noticeable addition to the fold on Time to Die-- producer Phil Ek is. and if you're thinking that Time to Die has a suspiciously similar sound to the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow or Fleet Foxes, now you know why. Look, Ek's call is one you gotta take if you're looking to make a leap to a new echelon of indie-fame, and the decisiveness of the album can be admirable when so many other quick turnarounds result in more of the same or guessing against a band's strengths. But while the Shins' James Mercer and Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold often use their backing bands as vehicles for vocals, but they don't have the Dodos' rhythmic force and this presentation initially plays like a misallocation of resources. Not that Long is a poor singer, far from it-- his voice remains convincingly boyish, even at its most cynical and he never loses control of his range. But as a wordsmith, he can be distractingly dodgy-- see: the anti-establishment sentiments of "Two Medicines" and "The Strums", too generic to have real bite despite featuring the record's most intriguing structure and a ingratiating, swooping chorus, respectively.
Opener "Small Deaths" begins with Long alone on guitar and vocals, and while that was the dominant sound on Visiter, there's a distinct makeover in presentation: His acoustic is more rounded, almost spongy, his voice coated with a warm, thin glaze of reverb. And then the drums come in-- Visiter crackled with the intensity of two monstrously talented musicians competing for the lead role (acoustic Lightning Bolt too much of a stretch?), but initially, it's "no, you go first." Over the wide-open chords at the start of "The Strums" you can practically hear a voiceover boasting "a new romantic comedy from the director who brought you..." "This Is a Business" bears more than a passing similarity to the ramshackle rumble of "Jodi", but it doesn't achieve the same frenetic lift-off. I've seen most of Time to Die performed live, and through that, answered the one question you'll probably have: Absolutely, these songs would sound much better if the drums were turned up.
All that said, the Dodos' charms are too strong to be held hostage by a bigger budget, even if you wonder what a guy like Brian Deck could do with it. If "Small Deaths" initially comes off as too tastefully restrained, it's only because the Dodos are allowing space between themselves and their most conventionally "epic" climax, a steady drum guiding as guitar and vibes steadily pace themselves in adding subtle fuzz tones. Likewise, early leak "Fables" may have sounded wanting for energy, but Kroeber shows a knack for a subtly ingratiating swing that emphasizes the Dodos' rhythmic gifts.
As Time to Die progresses, you slowly hear the Dodos growing more comfortable in their tonier territory. "Troll Nacht" is quite possibly the most gorgeous Dodos composition to date, an endearing and tender vocal performance by Long fitting its ease-into-Autumn glow, while the title track ends the record on a bobbing, bluesy note recalling their more Zeppelin III-inspired moments while incorporating a newfound look to harmonizing vocal loops.
So you really can't call Time to Die a disappointment, not when it actually improves on Visiter in some ways. It's not the full-out leap into "pop" that it would initially seem (for that, you'd need to hear the difference between Visiter and their self-released full-length, from back when they were called Dodo Bird), and for all its charms, Visiter wasn't exactly the tightest hour going. Time to Die bests it as far as consistency goes-- might not get a "Fools" here, but you won't get a "Park Song" either. And it's hard to envision Time to Die slowing the momentum of the Dodos' ascendance, not when their live performances are still thrilling as ever, but Time to Die comes off like a temporary decision to forgo made them lovable, flaws and all, and stress what makes them likeable.
— Ian Cohen, September 18, 2009