For a band that never really asks too much of anyone, Philadelphia sextet Dr. Dog sure sees its share of negative press. The line on these guys is that they’re shameless imitators whose quirky, lo-fi brand of psych pop never steps out of the shadows of the band’s extremely obvious influences. There’s also the bit about how they’ve been making the same album for the past nine or so years. Perhaps conscious of these recurring criticisms, the band hooked up with veteran indie producer Rob Schnapf for 2010s Shame, Shame – an album that found the band reigning in their oddball tendencies to deliver a polished set of concise, highly infectious pop tunes.
While Shame, Shame brought the band its most generous reviews to date, the buttoned-down recording process was apparently not a good fit for these restless experimenters. Be the Void, their second album for major indie Anti- and their sixth overall, finds the band once again recording in their home studio without any adult supervision. The result isn’t so much a step backwards as it is a step in every direction imaginable all at once. This is still unmistakably a Dr. Dog album. All of the fuzzed-out guitars, goosebump-raising harmonies, nonsensical lyrics, and the songs that lament the passage of time are present and accounted for. On this go around the band has made key additions in multi-instrumentalist Dmitri Manos and drummer Eric Slick (who plays with a soulful swing that brings to mind the late Al Jackson Jr. of Booker T & the MG’s), allowing them to tackle everything from Afropop to glam rock.
Singers/songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken, forever conjoined by their gloriously interweaving harmonies, often sound like they’re making two very different albums and that’s particularly true here. If you’re inclined to make yet another Beatles comparison, you can go ahead and call Be the Void their White Album. Leaman, with his nimble bass playing and soft-croon-to-hoarse-shout vocals, is always the more sonically adventurous and unpredictable of the two. He gets to open the album with the charmingly twangy “Lonesome”, which finds him answering a full band chant of “What does it take to be lonesome?” with an emphatic “Nothing at all!”. He also pitches in the hilariously caustic “Vampire” and the sweeping “Get Away”, which begins as a hushed soul ballad before blossoming into a string-laden world beat epic, complete with an Arcade Fire-sized chorus.
As expected, McMicken’s songs are more immediate and hook-heavy. Always the go-to guy for a leadoff single, McMicken offers up the carnival-esque “That Old Black Hole” and the sashaying “Do the Trick”, two giant nuggets of sugary pop that are among the best the band has ever served up. “How Long Must I Wait?”, which features the sort of crackling, redlined drum sound that should make the Flaming Lips proud, shows that these guys know their Stax (or Hall & Oates, anyway) just as well as they know their Beatles. And if someone played a sitar on “Dear Prudence” it would sound something like album closer “Turn the Century”, which finds McMicken wading into Fleet Foxes territory with gorgeous results.
Those who accuse the band of being stuck in their ways should skip straight to the ferocious “Warrior Man,” surprisingly spot-on send up of Kinks-ian folk rock (think T-Rex covering Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”). Leaman even adopts a faux English accent to deliver pseudo-psychedelic lines like “I am the ancient warrior man and I hail from the ancient warrior land / I invented the computer, man / Hubcaps and soda cans”. Of course, when a band tells you that they went in the studio, let the tape roll, and had a much fun as possible, you’re always going to end up with some dead weight. “These Days” and “Over Here, Over There” are exercises in ho hummery and Dr. Dog’s not-so-secret jam band tendencies are on display in all of the worst ways on the seemingly endless “Big Girl”.
For many years it always seemed like Dr. Dog were just a few inches shy of some sort of big breakthrough. With Be the Void, it has become clear that, while they’ll probably never make their masterpiece, the strange way they operate is essential to the business of being Dr. Dog. Having a band that puts out a solid album every two years is not something one should ever take for granted.