[16 October 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Moondoggies’ new album, Don’t Be a Stranger, couldn’t possibly be called anything else. It is a phrase you say to someone who is leaving, someone you know. And throughout this album, the Moondoggies are doing just that, leaving. Leaving spaces familiar in search of something, or in search of nothing, making the journey and the destination one and the same.
And the sound of that journey is one buried deep in the southern rock tradition. These songs are full of twang and grit, the melodies rich and earthen. But don’t mistake their southern rock tendencies for something laid back. There is nothing of the porch swing’s sway in these songs, not an ounce of sun-drenched So-Cal dudeness. In their place, these songs are infused with a snake-handling zeal, a volatile combination of cut-loose freedom and deep-in-the-bones fear that makes nearly every song on the album impossible to dismiss as slack or simple.
In all of its travels, the album deals often with death and God—no real surprise in this sort of rock. The band’s attitudes towards God goes from contention (“Ain’t No Lord”) to doubt (“Jesus on the Mainline”) to downright denial (“Save My Soul”). But they never quite settle on one, preferring instead to let each of those stones leave a ripple on the water, ripples that run into and meld with each other on the way to shore, without any solution.
On other songs, like the tent revival charge of “Ol’ Blackbird”, the band try to fend off impending death. They beg the bird to stay away as it gets ever closer, from high in the sky to a perch just above their heads. And when they’re not running away from death or God, they’re running to things without any care for actually getting to them. In “Black Shoe”, they sing to someone who stole their shoe. But rather than asking for it back, they ask “Where you going with my black shoe?” Through the whole song, all rolling bass notes and churning organ, they follow the thief without making any attempts to get the shoe back. Their curiosity, following the path, is more important.
So Don’t Be a Stranger is a southern rock album with its toes in straight country and folk, one that sings of the road and lost redemption and refusing to change. So what, right? Haven’t we heard this before? Well, yes. But not from these guys, and not usually with songs this great. Not to mention, the album has a good amount of range. “Night & Day”, which clocks in at eight-minutes, moves from a little folk ditty into an epic chunk of moody, southern gothic rock. “Long Time Coming” is a barn-burner of gang vocals and guitar solos, executed with the energy and precision of the early Allmans. Songs like “Old Hound” and “Undertaker” are ghostly folk ballads, touching on the quiet late nights of this trek, the stillness of the world when most of us are sleeping. And those quieter moments hint at the emotional depth behind the bigger numbers on the record.
So while Don’t Be a Stranger may run on a bit too long, that’s hardly something to complain about. In fact, that is exactly the point of the record, of the beautiful sounds the Moondoggies are making. Because the point of this journey isn’t to get anywhere, it’s to keep on going. To go until you’re exhausted, until that feeling in your gut tells you you’ve gone too far, that you should have stopped a few hours back. That is when the journey ends. That is the moment when you look back, bleary-eyed and tired with joy, and see where you’re been.