Dogme 95’s The Reagle Beagle is a fun little retelling of history, one which places the group’s mastermind and sole member Nick Wright on the H.M.S. Beagle with Charles Darwin, only to witness a series of what would prove to be relatively significant epiphanies, such as plate tectonics, evolution, and survival of the fittest, to name but a few. But while I was a supporter of this idea from the moment I read the press release, the songs themselves sadly don’t fully live up to the promise made by the scope of Wright’s ambitions.
Musically, we don’t have to go quite as far back as Darwin to draw a parallel. The Reagle Beagle is played and recorded in a manner that recalls pre-“Loser” Beck, back when he used to crash on his friends’ sofas, occasionally waking up to record a song on a four-track before using the gents’ room and going back to bed. This rickety recording style is one of Dogme 95’s charms; the ramshackle multi-tracked guitars in “There’s a Land That We’re Beyond” are as aurally gratifying as they are harmonically perfect, and the self-harmonies that permeate the record are not a stretch from Will Oldham at his most wonderfully dissonant. And like Oldham and early Beck, Wright’s are songs that appear at first to be relatively flat melodically but crawl into your subconscious with repeat listens, until you’re walking around the office humming “Salty Air and Devil’s Toes” so regularly that the people in the neighboring cubicles take to bringing earplugs to the otherwise boringly silent workplace.
Wright is an interesting creator of sounds, admirably making up for the lack of a full drum kit with layers of vocal percussion, hand drums, tambourines and shakers which, like the melodies, only reveal their prominence with repeat listens. Also buried underneath the layers of vocals and guitars is an ambient organ that subtly creeps out occasionally to add color. These recurring sounds add a unity to the record, giving it a sense of consistency rather than redundancy, a phenomenon that likely works because of the record’s brevity, (it clocks in at just under 27 minutes) as well as Wright’s ability to bring his own sense of charisma to whatever he does.
The failing of The Reagle Beagle, though, is ultimately that of its wasted promise. Had the idea not been so clever, the scope of the idea not so ambitious, Dogme 95’s new record could have succeeded as a nice little garage-folk album that resides comfortably next to One Foot in the Grave in your CD travel case. Wright’s ability to realize his musical vision is undeniably present, but his skills as a writer and storyteller are grossly absent. Many of the songs that are supposed to be accounts of Darwinism do little more than repeat their title phrases, forgoing any kind of narration whatsoever for monotonous lyrical repetition. “Survival of the Fittest” is no more a song about Darwin than Dylan’s “All the Tired Horses” is a song about Seabiscuit; thematically, The Reagle Beagle seems to think that simply by referencing any given number of Darwin-associated catch phrases that it has created a concept narrative around the man, and while I tip my hat to Wright for the wonderful blueprint, to see such an idea realized successfully is not nearly as simple as this records suggests he’d like it to be.
This type of writing requires attention to detail, narrative, and characters, the problem with the storytelling here is we never learn anything about what kind of guy this Darwin was, what made him tick, what his little quirks were. Certainly these are things that Wright would have been in a position to share with us, what with all the time they spent together and all, but we get no insight into these things. Instead, the space is filled with endless catch-phrase repetition. Occasionally Darwin’s name comes up as a character, but it seldom serves any kind of narrative purpose; in “Bloody Basin,” Wright either declares that “Darwin is touching large feet” or “Darwin is touching God’s feet.” Which one it is I can’t quite make out; either one is a decent enough image, but symbolism only goes so far. The inability to paint Darwin as a tangible character makes me care little about this journey on which these two men embarked together.
The Reagle Beagle is an album on which wonderful ambitions collide with half-hearted execution. Dogme 95’s latest is a musical success, but a narrative letdown, going to great lengths to support the idea that you can’t have a concept album if you don’t fully explore your concept.