Lazily lumped in with the freak-folk scene, the Dodos really aren’t all that freakish. They easily sit alongside OC alumni as music that Natalie Portman probably just adores.
The Dodos are in their element when they’re cruising at a steady clip, fueled by drummer Logan Kroeber’s wagon wheel percussion. Kroeber’s drumming has an industrial quality, allegedly developed through his time spent in a prog-metal band. Bellowing skins are not heard often in folk, and Kroeber’s drums would not be welcomed in a coffeehouse. But this is where the band shines. The Dodos get tedious when they lean into troubadour mode. Meric Long’s songwriting lacks the wit of John Darnielle, while his half-hearted delivery lacks the emotional impact of Jeff Buckley—a deadpan, “Your love is like a thorn in my side” being particularly groan-inducing example.
“Joe’s Waltz” is a good showcase of the band’s weaknesses and strengths. The first half is a tepid rehash of Elliot Smith’s “Waltz #2” that will make listeners wince when Long’s voice can’t seem to hit those flat notes. A few minutes in, the duo put the pedal down and tear it up with an electrifying blues shakedown, rescuing an otherwise awful song. “It’s That Time Again” is a drunken frat-house paean to a lost love while “Paint in the Rust” showcases warped finger picking that would make the latter-day John Fahey proud.
It may go against their goal of recreating their live shows (as declared in their label’s press release), but the band’s sparse use of electric guitar adds a whole lot of texture to a rather bare album. When it is used, it tears a hole through the duo’s fragile compositions. “Fools” is greatly enhanced with just a little distortion here and there.
The hair-raising “Jodi” features foggy mountain jamboree guitarwork sandwiched by anthemic vocal refrains. The album’s most engaging track, it’s an exhilarating blend of intelligent pop, light psychedelia, and dirty bluegrass. “Ashley” then proves that the band doesn’t necessarily have to be loud to impress. With haunting synthesizer and ghostly guest vocals from an as yet uncredited female, “Ashley” is a softly-sung hymn to what seems like yet another love interest—a gorgeously spooky contrast to the album’s foot-stompers.
The band will no doubt garner comparisons to Animal Collective on the few songs that feature yelps and tribal percussion, while “Ashley”’s stuttering vocal ticks recall the freak-folk band’s idiosyncratic delivery on Sung Tongs. The album closes with “God?”, a bold questioning of God’s judgement that ends with a joyful embrace of life’s uncertainties. Long’s normally vanilla voice really shines here, with nervous quivers and bold cries. One is left feeling that the Dodos are selling themselves short, hanging onto prettyboy singer-songwriterdom when they should be letting their freak flag fly.
// Notes from the Road
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