By: Dennis Cook
Fate (released July 22 on Park The Van), the fifth album from Philadelphia's Dr. Dog is a pilgrim's hymnbook written in popular song, full of outward bound thoughts wedded to shoo-bee-do-wops and befuzzed guitar. It's the kind of album you like right away but find you're madly in love with after a few dates. By your first road trip alone you'll be ready to slip a ring on its finger. An upward draft informs everything, even the tunes that begin down in the dumps, and it's that tenacity at grasping at the light that elevates Fate - and Dr. Dog in general – above the realm of neat pop craftsmanship (which, coincidentally, they do quite well). Fate is ham-hocks and collard greens for starved souls that only reveals its true spicing once it's inside you.
"Some things present themselves in everyone's lives in a million different varieties. These things make music feel substantial," says Scott McMicken, one of the voices and architects of Dr. Dog. "I find the most solace and realization in knowing about these things. No matter how sort of stuck in the muck you get, if you can find evidence of these same things existing in other people's lives, well, it just feels like a function of life and a human attribute. It's really good. The most dangerous thing is getting lost and locked up in your own experiences. I find these moments of shared experience to be so beneficial."
It's this universality, this quest for commonality and connection that informs Fate. That they deliver this message in a package that recalls great pop artists of the past makes their philosophical slight of hand all the more impressive. Their Wikipedia entry begins:
Dr. Dog is a psychedelic rock band from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their sound has been compared to that of various 1960s pop bands, especially The Beatles and The Band, as well as The Beach Boys.
It's lazy shorthand but this set of associations tends to crop up in nearly every piece about them, in one form or another. Though Dr. Dog shares the solidity and super charged creative energy of these reference points, they don't really sound like The Band or The Beatles and largely left behind any discernible Beach Boys nods a couple years ago. In much the same way as every singer-songwriter is the "New Dylan" or "New Neil Young," critics tend to lump music into codified little boxes. So when confronted by a fully flowering rock monster like Dr. Dog most aren't sure what to do with them. While many establishment wags can't conceive of a contemporary group making albums as rich as Revolver, Stage Fright or Smiley Smile, that's just what Dr. Dog has done with Fate, which hints at even more spectacular things to come. However, it's not especially psychedelic, at least not in the candy ass, incense and peppermints way most folks take it to be.
"That word is just swimming around there for anyone to pick up on. It's a very, very subjective word at this point in time. Any music possessing a general characteristic of color and some sort of imaginary landscape immediately falls into that psychedelic category," points out McMicken. "I feel this issue is somewhat of a problem but can also be seen as a challenge, not just in the building of the identity or consciousness of your band but in learning how to feel a personal connection with something that is so easily tagged and so easily referenced. To re-appropriate all these elements and sort of become familiar with the history, the grand narrative of whatever you're a part of – whether it's your own self-analysis or your family or culture as an artist – is an opportunity to learn to keep the peace with your own personal history AND to be very comfortable in terms of any given point in what precedes you, and being proud to carry these things on instead of lashing out against them or feeling like they only exist in their most beautiful form only for you to dodge and avoid. For the most part, that's kind of what Fate, the record, is about in a nutshell."
Do you feel like you're stuck in time?
Forever waiting on that line
If nothing ever moves
Put that needle to the groove
As Virginia Woolf would tell you (if she wasn't clutching stones at the bottom of a lake), a room of one's own makes all the difference in art and life. For the past few years, Dr. Dog has recorded at their home studio. The lack of clockwatching and freedom to work at all hours has meant a steady technical progression that's matched pace with their increased skill as players and songwriters. They buy their tape used from a hip-hop studio in Philly, and from time to time happy accidents from the blunted maestros make their way into their tunes, shuddery, chuckling ghosts inside their spiraling barroom piano and fluttering melodies. After saving up their pennies, they purchased a 24-track rig that replaced their cherished four-track, which still gets a workout from time to time.
|Dr. Dog by Sam Seager|
"We used to roll the tape and record a song. If it was awesome it was awesome, if it was bad it was bad, but we'd never go back. Now we can do several takes and let the music develop more naturally," says McMicken. "In a band you're constantly working on things together. It's very delicate. The good thing is you work through things and you wind up stronger than ever. For me, that's linked up with being in a band and always improving."
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