[7 August 2007]
It is always a sight to behold when a band whose dissolution occurred nearly 25 years ago continues to play a prominent role in the creation of contemporary music. In Britain, the Jam’s influence will likely live on forever. Originally led by Paul Weller, the trio introduced a revitalized form of mod-punk in the late ‘70s, a style that generally every modernly successful British art-rock band borrows its stylistic swagger from. While the examples range inarguably from the Arctic Monkeys to Bloc Party, the high chart positions for such respected bands certainly signify that the genre never appears to sound outdated. Rightfully considered to be one of the godfathers of British punk, Weller is now a national celebrity and well regarded as one of Britain’s most enigmatic songwriters after compiling an equally successful solo career. Keeping such ideals in mind, whenever Weller is merely associated with one of the recent artists who idolize his body of work, it serves as an immediate boost for the band’s career and reputation. When Dogs, the brash five-piece out of London, released their debut album, Turn Against This Land in 2005, they would have probably giggled like schoolgirls if Weller even gave them the time of day. The sheer fact that a musician of Weller’s stature is lending a helping hand in the production of an inexperienced band’s sophomore follow-up truly symbolizes the amount of potential that Dogs displayed in their excitable debut.
Considering that Dogs’ first three singles—“London Bridge”, “She’s Got a Reason”, and “Turned to a Different Station”—all cracked the UK Top 40 upon initial release, bassist Duncan Timms understood the cumbersome expectations that surrounded the release of their second album, Tall Stories from Under the Table. “[We] changed from being the next best big thing into proper musicians,” he stated. “All of us have moved on individually on our instruments and that comes through.” While the handiwork of former PJ Harvey producer Steve Musters does wonders with the band’s gritty, punk-oriented sound, Timms’ belief that the band has excelled in musicianship also shines true throughout the album. Whereas Turn Against This Land was an excitable though stylistically linear debut, Tall Stories from Under the Table represents a more ambitious turn, even if Dogs remain pure disciples of the Jam at heart. As the abrasively infectious opener “Dirty Little Shop” clearly demonstrates in its concise rhythm section and compendiously overbearing guitar riffs, the band has maintained the youth and vigor of its debut while simultaneously improving on the inaccuracies that made several generic attempts forgettable.
The charismatic “Soldier On” immediately comes off as half-drunken tribute served in a British pub as lead vocalist Johnny Cooke proudly pronounces, “Here’s to the lonely old soldiers”. When the rhythm section kicks in a few seconds afterwards, the execution is eerily reminiscent of the Jam’s former rhythm section of Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. While the guitar progression is not fully exposed until the contagious chorus, the bass and percussive elements work as the song’s consistent heartbeat. While such a formula is repeated on the album in the more aggressively toned “Winston Smith” and “These Days”, a pinch of diversity is added on other softer, acoustically focused songs that I would dare to classify as ballads if compared to Dogs’ typical exhibits of hostility and belligerence. “Chained to No One” is the most evident example of this as Cooke lyrically relays the ups and downs of single life over the collaborative strums of an acoustic and electric guitar. “And he’s bloodied and battered and macked upon”, Cooke tauntingly begins. “Well yeah, but he’s chained to no one, no”.
One of the evident factors in Dogs’ separation from other mod-punk revivalist hopefuls can be heard in Cooke’s yearning vocals. He possesses the perfect type of demeanor for the gritty delivery that he pulls off without a flinch. With a raspy voice that snarls and moans nonchalantly, it is easy to recognize why the comparisons to an early Paul Weller are abundant in the British press. It also adds to the enjoyably fervent touch that Cooke’s English accent is so thick that the lyrical content is often incomprehensible, delivering tales of one night stands, drunken binges, and relatable youthful circumstances (when he does manage to be understood). Several rare circumstances like this occur throughout “On a Bridge, By a Pub”, one of the album’s greatest moments. Cooke delivers Dogs’ most effectively dramatic lyrical portrayals of societal pressure caving into thoughts of suicidal conformity—a mature outlook considering the band’s previously adolescent statements of pub romps. While seedy nightlife is certainly a prevalent theme in the song, the most impressive aspect of the song occurs in the gripping chorus that establishes “On a Bridge, By a Pub” as a hopeful indication of what type of quality to expect from Dogs in the near future.
It is almost ironic that Weller’s only audible involvement, a vocal track on the concluding “Let It Lay”, is nearly indistinguishable from Cooke’s vocal track. They both possess a voice so similar in style that Weller’s contribution probably would not have been known if not for the liner notes and masses of publicity. Even so, it is rather apparent that Weller’s presence is more prominently represented in the band’s excitable style of songwriting than a vocal take. “Let It Lay” nonetheless is a very satisfying song that falls in the softer, more subtle range of “Chained to No One”. While Cooke continues to raise his vocal intensity as each new chorus weaves its way into the structure, it serves as a very distinguishable closer to a lively and entertaining album. With plenty of stimulating moments generated by wholesome guitar riffs and Cooke’s raw vocal power, Tall Stories from Under the Table is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for Dogs.