Near the close of the Moondoggies’ excellent second album, Tidelands, at the tail end of “We Can’t All be Blessed,” singer Kevin Murphy and his band – Caleb Quick, Bob Terreberry and Carl Dahlen – erupt into harmonies, their voices criss-crossing in triumph over what has been, up to that point, kind of a downbeat song. It’s a fitting summation for an album that begins in dogged discouragement and ends in renewal.
Tidelands is, by any definition, a huge improvement over the Moondoggies’ 2008 debut Don’t Be a Stranger, a tighter, more cohesive statement from a band that is still carving out its particular niche in rock and roll. The album was written during the darkest months of the post-meltdown recession, as friends and family were struggling to keep jobs and houses and put food on the table. Yet it is by no means a depressing album. Listen to it from beginning to end and you’ll begin to get a sense of endurance, of persistence in the face of deep discouragement and even of joy.
“That’s right on. That’s exactly it,” says Murphy when asked about the complex mix of emotions that Tidelands captures. “We were trying to be constructive in the middle of negativity. We were trying not to be too much of a bummer.”
The Moondoggies come from Seattle. Murphy went to high school with Terreberry and Dahlen. Caleb Quick, the keyboard player, was in the same school but a few years ahead, introduced to Murphy by an older brother. The four of them played together a bit before Murphy went north to Alaska in 2005.
“I was just working, trying to get out of the funk that I was in by mixing it up and doing something else,” Murphy explains. “Alaska is beautiful. It wasn’t always the happiest place for me.”
When Murphy returned, the band got together again, at first in a very casual way. He says, “Bob had instruments set up in his garage, so we started messing around in there, and it just gained momentum. Bob got a Rhodes, so we got Caleb to come over and listen and play along…and ever since then we’ve played as this band.”
Soon the Moondoggies were holding down a regular gig at Seattle’s Blue Moon Tavern and signing with indie label Hardly Art. Their first album, Don’t Be a Stranger came out in 2008 and earned good reviews. PopMatters’s Matt Fiander gave it an 8/10 rating, and observed: “These songs are infused with a snake-handling zeal, a volatile combination of cut-loose freedom and deep-in-the-bones fear that makes nearly every song on the album impossible to dismiss as slack or simple.”
“The first record was almost just us tracking and recording the songs that we had,” says Murphy. “For the second one, we had more time to tinker and we were a little more open to giving the album its own personality.”
For instance, at one point in the sessions for Tidelands, someone got the idea to plug Quick’s Rhodes into a Leslie cabinet, generating a watery, wavy keyboard sound that came to define the album. The band subsequently re-tracked most of the album to incorporate this new element.
The album’s tracks were written at a variety of times, some shortly before or even during the recording process and one, “Empress of the North,” during Murphy’s sojourn in Alaska. The album’s title – and the imagery for its cover – were also inspired by his time in the 49th state. “The photo on the cover was taken in Washington State,” he admits, “but the specific image, the Tidelands, came from a very pivotal moment I had when I was up there. It was one of the few times I really did anything Alaskan up there. I went out 17 miles in the middle of nowhere, just camping out in the woods. I went with a couple of guys and had some kayaks. It was one of the brighter moments.”
But regardless of when or where the original inspiration for a song came, from the material was re-arranged and re-imagined in the studio. “We write songs in different ways,” says Murphy. “Some of them are very collaborative. Sometimes we will have the skeleton of a song. We encourage everybody to contribute. The more that people want to put in and give to a song, the better it gets.”
For instance, “What Took So Long” is an amalgamation of two songs that Murphy brought to the band, plus a chorus that Quick had been working on. Drummer Carl Dahlen wrote the main elements of “Lead Me On,” and Murphy added a couple of parts to it. “Sometimes we just fit pieces where they feel right,” he says. “There are songs on there that I definitely have done, but I think the majority of the songs sound how they sound because of everybody’s input.”
Working in the studio allowed the Moondoggies to push for complexities that they might not be able to pull off live, like the stirring, multi-voiced chorus of “We Can’t All Be Blessed.”
“That song was probably the most studio-minded of all of them,” says Murphy. “I knew there was no way I could play it the way I imagined it just in the garage.” In the studio, however, he and his bandmates had time to experiment. “You have to start throwing things up in the air and see how they land,” he adds. “We had friends come in to play violin and pedal steel. We wanted to build on the song and make it a big, epic moment.”
The Moondoggies have only played “We Can’t All Be Blessed” a few times live, so far, and only locally where they can bring back the song’s extra players. Still if it really only exists in its true form on record, that’s okay with Murphy. “I grew up liking the Beatles,” he says. “They made records that you could do live, I suppose, but also the studio kind, where they were just sort of experimenting.”
On the album, the song showcases one of the most distinct things about the Moondoggies: The way they use vocal harmonies to lift their songs to another level, leaving the regret and discouragement of their lyrics behind. Murphy says he’s been a fan of gospel singing for years, and that Quick grew up in a family that sung hymns in harmony as a regular thing.
Still, despite ties to a number of traditions – gospel, country, funk, blues and folk – Murphy bridles at being categorized in any of them. “We make rock ‘n roll music, which I think is, by definition, all-encompassing. It’s a big melting pot of all sorts of sounds.”
And like many kinds of music, it’s a way to transcend difficult times and find joy in the midst of trouble. “It’s very natural to be overwhelmed or consumed by negative things,” Murphy says. “This record is about trying to be constructive, about not wanting to feel doomed.”