[20 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When you think of Dog Bite as a band name, what do you think of? Do you think of hardcore punk? Heavy garage? Something sinister and devious? Well, it turns out that this Atlanta-based outfit isn’t any of those things. Would you believe… chillwave? Shoegaze? Surf Rock? Dog Bite, the band, is all that and much more, sometimes even resembling ‘80s Britpop along the lines of the Smiths. So, yes, it is a rather strange and beguiling name for the band, but as their second album (in less than a year at that) called Tranquilizers shows, a lack of musical identity is the least of the band’s problems. The songs, generally speaking, are just not there. This is simply gussed up surf rock in the vein of the Pixies, with some updates to account for recent day indie rock, for the most part. Think Surfer Rosa meets Surfer Blood, with a dash or two of dream pop, and you’d be in the right direction.
Dog Bite is actually best known for frontman Phil Jones being a former Washed Out keyboardist, although his tenure in Dog Bite is said to include more ‘60s-based soul influences along the lines of Otis Redding that I don’t quite hear in Tranquilizers. I listen to the album and am taken to the West Coast beach scene of the same era – opening song “There Was Time” has a stuttering, almost Tennis feel to it, making it more akin to Beach Blanket Bingo than either the soul scene or the ‘80s Casio scene. But it is rather languid, like a great deal of the album, and doesn’t really resonate with the listener other than to be something that feels ... pleasant. And that’s the best thing you can really say about it.
That’s not to say that the aptly-titled Tranquilizers doesn’t have a lot to offer. When the outfit ramps up its melodies and sense of experimentation, the album becomes something more intriguing and interesting than its cool vibes would make it out to be. An acoustic guitar break in “We” makes the song’s similarity to a Vampire Weekend track seem better than it is, but the song peters out as a fade out on that instrumentation, as though the group ran out of ideas and just chose to end the song than go anywhere with the hook. “Clarinets” fares better, sounding a little like something out of the great ‘80s pop songbook: with equal parts Wang Chung and more modern day indie rock infused in this slow burn, it makes its case for being the best thing to be on the album. It’s dreamy and gauzy in equality, and it sticks out on an album of meandering material. Likewise, closer “Rest Assured” is just as compelling, because it sounds so dark and threatening, pointing the way to much more open ideas worth exploring on the follow-up to this (assuming there is one). “Rest Assured” sounds like an old-school Nintendo game’s boss theme song run amok, and it crawls into your head and sticks around.
However, the problem with Tranquilizers is that there are too few highlights such as these, and too many songs that rub together and sound exactly like carbon copies of each other, affording an album with a few peaks and great deal of, if not valleys, then plateaus. It’s nice to hang out with Tranquilizers, but that’s about the best thing you can say about it: it’s just… there. “Lady Queen” even feels silly with its line, “She’s a beauty queen / With a heart of gold”, which, naturally, falls right into the realm of cliché. And that’s when you can discern what’s being said on the vocals at all. Jones frequently sounds laconic and bored, and even the thin wail of the keyboards often threaten to overtake him. “Tuesdays” just stutters along into something that’s feels ripped from the Real Estate songbook, and the glitchy “Wonder Dark” does very little with its Spaghetti Western vibe. Strangely, the albums singles – “Dream Feast” and “Royals” – come from the backend of the record, which is where the band lays its most obvious chillwave influences bare. And it’s strange that both of these songs were chosen for singles, considering that they might be among the more boring things found on the platter, but I would suspect that the record label was hoping to chose something that would sell the band on its obvious debts to the likes of Washed Out and labelmate Toro y Moi.
Another reviewer has already made the “bark being worse that its bite” analogy, but, before taking a gander at what others were saying of this work online, I had pretty much reached that conclusion myself. There’s not a lot that really rises above on Tranquilizers, and, so, the name of the record is pretty apt: this is about as close to the blissed out feeling of being made to relax by medicine in sonic form as it comes, which is too bad, as the album does show promise and very occasionally throws the odd curveball into the mix. But what we get here is just warmed over ‘80s pop and alterna rock, and not much else. That makes Tranquilizers ultimately disappointing as it does very little with the so-called chillwave or shoegaze formula.
In fact, for an album of this ilk, it does feel very rushed coming so soon on the heels of the band’s 2013 debut, Velvet Changes. The critical reaction to that album wasn’t exactly kind – here at PopMatters, it got a pretty lousy review – so my suspicion is that Tranquilizers is a record that was pumped out in an attempt to raise the bar and make listeners forget about something so forgettable. That it doesn’t succeed is grist for the mill that Dog Bite might consider a complete overhaul and new approach to its music making. For a band that sounds more punk than its musical output would parlay, there’s very little on Tranquilizers that makes any sort of impact, making it, for the most part, a passable and utterly disposable album. If that makes you jumpy, relax. Despite a few obvious highlights and stuff worthy of mention, you’ve heard this all before and, unfortunately, done a whole lot better.