Colin McCann, guitarist for Baltimore’s Wilderness, is really on to something with his new project, The Lord Dog Bird. It does all the good things meaningful side projects do. We get an artist working from a different palate, creating something quite different from his first band. But he also makes the listener reconsider the bombast of Wilderness’ noise as something far less cerebral than it seems on its own. McCann uses his squalling guitar sounds—sure, he tones them down a bit, but its still his sound—and gives us an intimate and compelling record with The Lord Dog Bird.
This project is immediately set apart from McCann’s work in Wilderness by size. These are four-track bedroom recordings, made by McCann on his own, a far cry from the giant walls of sound his band creates. But even though the knobs are turned down, McCann rarely loses any excitement in his music. Opener “The Shedding Path” shows us exactly where McCann plans to take us. He continues to experiment with repetition in these songs, and the guitars fuzz and pulse through these songs. “The Shedding Path”, in particular, finds the guitar driving the song forward, so much so that it hardly needs any percussion.
Later in the record, on “March to the Mountain”, McCann calms the guitar some, but still lets the notes ring, and the song is drawn-out and haunting. So when drums kick in halfway through the track—far off in the background, the other half of the room perhaps—they are both unassuming and surprising. And as he sings about a time “where every river is clogged, and you can’t find the sun”, the quiet throb of the guitar starts to take on the edge of frustration and the weight of loss. It’s a beautiful moment, and one typical of this record, where McCann lets the instrumentation, spartan and steadfastly thumping as it is, do the talking.
As a vocalist, McCann breaks far left from the vocals in Wilderness. Of course, its hard to be any more over-the-top than those David-Byrne-with-a-bullhorn howls, but McCann aims for a voice that is slightly more melodic, one that meshes with the song rather than rising above it. For the most part, in “One Mind” and “March to the Mountain” in particular, his vocals are quite affecting. They may lack a certain distinction—he could be the singer for any number of bands—but they more than make up for that in earnestness. Listening to The Lord Dog Bird, you get the feeling he made this record totally for himself. Not to be contrarian, but to make something that was his, and that he eventually felt he could share. It’s an album with the rare combination of quiet and tenacity, one that proves that noise does not equal energy, but execution sure does. And it is also an album that should be applauded for not calling attention to its lo-fi production. Now that we’re in the umpteenth wave of lo-fi indie rock, too many bands wear their fuzzy recordings as a badge.
Not so here. These recordings arose out of a certain situation, out of a necessity, and are actually quite clear for being made on a four-track. And rather than give the record a false sense of blue collar values, it gives the record an inviting and honest warmth. This album wants you to get lost in it.
And once you do, it is almost always rewarding. McCann can be overly strident on tracks—like when he shouts about “setting a place for Death” in “The Shedding Path”—rendering the moment melodramatic and out-of-synch with the rest of the album. But those moments are few, and never fully take over any one song. And the entire album builds to its finest moment. “The Gift of Song in the Lion’s Den” does see McCann raising his voice a bit, but it works better here. The song uses all of the album’s elements brilliantly (lone guitar sounds, distant and swirling instrumentation in the back, spare but affecting drums) and it puts McCann’s voice on display more than any other track, and he stands up well to the spotlight. And when he gets to the closing line, “The gift of song comes, bringing us all peace”, and the instruments fade, and we’re left with nothing but the echo of his voice, it is a show-stopping moment and the perfect way to end this record. The Lord Dog Bird is just the kind of gift McCann is singing about in that closing track, whether he knows it or not.