[8 April 2011]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Everything you need to know about the new Dodos album can literally be heard in its first seven seconds: the drums are back, and they are very, very loud.
While it would be easy to characterize No Color—the band’s fourth full-length—as a retreat back into the “indie-percussive-folk” sound that they made their name with on 2008’s Visiter (and only somewhat abandoned on the indifferently-received 2009 follow-up Time to Die), such a description would gloss over the fact that not only is the band trying to sound like their former selves, they’re actually writing songs like their former selves as well.
It’s not that Time to Die was necessarily a bad album or an outright stylistic detour—the addition of keyboardist Keaton Snyder honestly didn’t add as many new textures as fans thought he would—it was just a very muted album. While before the band virtually centered all of their songs around the drums as a lead instrument, on Time to Die they flipped that dynamic, and the drums now merely supported singer Meric Long’s guitar work (now amplified to the nth degree) instead of forcing him to audibly overcome Logan Kroeber’s pounding of skins—a move that ultimately deflated the tension and energy in their music. Yet that alone wasn’t the reason why Time to Die disappeared as quickly as it arrived—Long’s songwriting just lost a lot of its edge. While certain moments harkened back to Visiter‘s many highlights (“Two Medicines” chief among them), the duo’s need for stretching out in new directions uncovered more weakness than they did strengths, showing that Long’s guitar-work on its own was (surprisingly) not enough to carry a song. As such, it’s easy to hear No Color as nothing more than the sound of backpedaling, glorious backpedaling.
So, instead of breaking out of their rut by trying even wilder tangents (or going to the other end of that extreme and trying that whole “sell-out” thing everyone keeps talking about), the duo instead decided to streamline their sound, and they wound up finding a perfect balance between their percussive-folk leanings and their outright pop instincts on No Color. After single “Black Night” opens up the record with the sound of gigantic, pounding drums, it then launches into one of Long’s most considered quick-strum melodies, all while he throws out missives of being burned by a mysterious flame after obsessing over them for too long. The lyrical ellipses continue on the shifting “Going Under”, where Long’s words manage to be vague enough to warrant meaning without sounding overly labored (the song opens with the line “This takes us by surprise, I’m sure / Are you the curse? Are you the cure?”). Best of all, it seems that Long has fully grown into the role of vocalist with this effort, finding the perfect balances between singing dramatically and singing emotionally, perfecting it to the point that even though Neko Case is listed as giving backing vocals on a lot of tracks, you barely even hear her on the album.
Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of No Color is that even after all the attempted stylistic detours of Time to Die, it’s No Color‘s latter-half that finds the band borrowing from more stylistic templates than ever before, and almost all for the better. The frantic picking on closer “Don’t Stop” sounds like a joyous full-band cross between John Fahey and Will Stratton, and the positively upbeat “Don’t Try and Hide It” might have well been an AM radio hit in the 1970s, as it simply radiates sunshine from Long’s simple chord progressions and impassioned singing. That’s not to say that the band switches up their sound on every track—they have just found a way to incorporate a new variety of influences to the Dodos’ signature strum-n-pound sound, and each new track brings slight, subtle mutations on their key strengths (even if the Sufjan-esque vibraphones used in “Hunting Season” wind up disappointing a bit: they are used in the intro and are then promptly dropped, hinting at what could’ve been but never heard again).
With all of that said though, it’s somewhat ironic that the one problem for an album titled No Color is that despite all of its interesting eccentrics, this disc is fairly monochromatic. Long’s guitar sounds almost the same in every track, and the tempo rarely fluctuates; as such, a lot of the songs can blur together on a straight-through listen, which means fans can be forgiven if the middle passages of “Going Under” and “Hunting Season” sound way too similar to each other. That said, however, this proves to be only a slight problem for the duo. After all, No Color wasn’t meant to break any barriers: it’s merely an affirmation of what people have known and loved about the duo for some time now. To the fans who stuck it out during Time to Die, this album may sound like the band is overcorrecting a bit, but in all honesty, overcorrection has never sounded so good.