Heavy Baltimore noise rockers up the ante on their second album with complex songs and a wider palette of sounds.
Describing Baltimore’s Dope Body, writers tend to use masculine adjectives, like "testosterone," "balls," "muscle," "brawn," and "aggressive." The band itself poses its approach against the scene Baltimore is most known for in the last decade, the more whimsical and absurd electronic and dance prone Wham City collective. Not that Dope Body doesn’t have absurd elements, but the band employs a more traditional rock set up of bass, drums, guitar, and vocals, trying, as they say, to reclaim the glory of basement hardcore shows, with sweaty pits (meant in two sense) from a different kind of dancing. In fact, Dope Body fits in its own gang of bands that are revamping the ‘90s sounds of grunge, alternative, and post-hardcore, built around heavy guitars and strangled vocals. There does seem to be a masculine bent to this sound, which perhaps Dope Body nods to in their band name, the way a man might refer to an attractive girl. Though the various ‘90s scenes Dope Body references did have their heavier female acts, Dope Body truck in a seemingly uncomplicated teenaged approach to the world that gets belied by the mangled twists of the music. In fact, as singer, Andrew Laumann, advises on the second single and a highlight of the album, "Weird Mirror," "Chicks with dicks / That’s what you get with picking up tricks / Just the way of the world." In other words, things aren’t as simple as they appear.
Though the most obvious sonic touchstone for Dope Body is the Jesus Lizard, who laid the blueprint in the ‘80s and ‘90s for this kind of thumping heavy music rounded out by a strange, non-singing, lyrical spouting of clever epithets and sarcastic observations, on Dope Body’s second album and their first for Drag City, the band develops a more interesting strand of influence: Van Halen. Laumann’s husky worldliness channels no one so much as Diamond Dave, especially on songs like "Weird Mirror". On Natural History, Dope Body does not shy away from catchier melodies and chord progressions to make their jagged stop and start sound almost accessible, coming up with a sound that might be paradoxically described as glam math rock. The title of the second song, "Road Dog", pays homage to another canine-inspired heavy song, Nazareth’s "Hair of the Dog", and employs the same swinging cowbell that marks that song, a harbinger of glam metal. Dope Body consistently counters that aggressive, muscular sound its known for with catchy riffs, guitar interludes, and nearly sung melodies -- though this lineage is perhaps just as muscular, it comes perhaps with a daub eof yeliner.
The press on this album touts it as their most commercially viable, which may be tongue in cheek, because this band probably will never amass a group of young teen (girl) fans. But there is something true in this statement, as the band further widens its bag of tricks gleaned from the ’90s heyday of commercial weirdness, like Jane’s Addiction inspired wah-wahs, Nirvana themed whiny growls, Faith No More epic strangeness, and even Primus borrowed drum and bass thumps, which tend to set up each song along with strange guitar scratching. But Dope Body filters through buzz bins to grab hold of the most alienating aspect of these influences, before mixing in just a hint of pop accessibility.
One likely addition that made Dope Body’s evolution possible on this album, from the more purely brutal yet exciting debut Nupping, is the addition of a bass player, John Jones. Jones allows guitarist Zach Utz, who did double duty on bass for the first album, more space to develop his essential and finely tuned guitar leads that are highlights on every song. It is strange that a band that relies so intensely on a brutal and tricky rhythm section, still guided by David Jacober on drums, did not have a full time bass player. Though on Nupping, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the Utz was split between bass and guitar, you can certainly tell that band has developed its chops for Natural History. Perhaps the addition of a bass player marks the band’s progression into a committed band. The album’s title commemorates the band’s first show at Baltimore’s Museum of Natural History, which was supposed to be a one-off event, but was good enough to keep the band swinging.
Becoming a full band may however have its downside. Each song takes time to work its way into a groove: one instrument begins, finds its rhythmic place and then the others pile on. This leaves extra space between songs as the songs develop. This may be Dope Body’s style -- its strength is the way songs evolve over the course, even though the band uses repetitive parts (verse-chorus-bridge structure), there is a linear feel to the compositions. But it stretches almost each track to over four minutes and therefore makes the album go slowly at moments. Perhaps due to this unnecessary space, the album overall sometimes seems flabby. Though Dope Body toys with catchy hooks, the songs aren’t really pop songs, and risk blending together without hugely memorable moments. Most of the songs employ the same thumping beat, obscuring their more interesting particularities until repeated listens.
Still, these criticisms are minor in face of the new bag of tricks the band has employed on this album. Natural History marks a step forward for the band, a step in the right direction, towards a more sophisticated sound than merely muscular noise rock. The album unlocks over time. Though the band still hits you over the head, it also has found some subtler shades to aggression.