The Dodos have long been hailed for a kind of ragged kineticism. Based in San Francisco, the duo, comprised of frontman Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber, make hyperactive indie folk that sounds handcrafted in the most explicit sense of the word: which is to say, borne of fingers and fists moving furiously, over and over again, until these fingers and fists seem to blur beyond recognition. Their aesthetic — ponderous melodies, African polyrhythms, vocals lost in the thick of both — first crystallized on 2008’s Visiter, a record that won them a devoted following and a surfeit of critical praise. And rightly so: for an album assembled almost entirely around drums and acoustic guitar, it sounded like a revelation, one packed with soaring hooks and shy-kid anthems.
“Walking”, one of those anthems, stands at Visiter‘s beginning, and it stands apart. The song is threadbare, unraveling at the seams. It rattles and creaks and threatens to splinter into pieces. A handpicked guitar line anchors the track, but it’s not really an anchor at all. Here, there’s no ground where an anchor could rest. Long may say that he’s walking — “Walk around without her just for a bit / Looking back upon the way things had been” — but he’s suspended in mid-air. Something is carrying him forward: hope, lust, a memory that seems so close that it can be seized. Part country-blues pastoral, part McCartney-esque confection, the song ends it just over two minutes, and in its wake is the sound now inextricably tied to the Dodos’ name.
It’s been ten years since “Walking” and Visiter, but Long and Kroeber still live up to this name — and the sound that put them on the map. On Certainty Waves, their seventh album together, the duo have added electronic textures, noise, and synthesizers to their repertoire, but they still seem like boys thrilled by the possibilities of rhythmic experimentation and melodic heft. “What does a song hold?”, Long asked on “Transformer”, the standout cut from the band’s fifth LP, Carrier. It’s a question that gets to the heart of the Dodos’ career-long project: to write and play songs of such physicality and scope that they seem straightjacketed by their own confines.
“Certainty Waves is our midlife crisis record,” Long explained. Although you can’t hear this crisis in the music, it’s there behind the scenes. Recently, Long lost his father, became a father himself, and struggled to find a way to guide his band into maturity. Despite these concerns, the Dodos have made a record of blistering folk-pop poetry that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Visiter.
Listen to “SW3”, the album’s centerpiece and highpoint, and this poetry is on full display. With its implacable momentum and strings-about-to-snap guitar accompaniment, it sounds like a spiritual sequel to “Walking”, but now Long has to squint to look back at better times. “Always reading the past / Like it’s some sort of fact,” Long sings in the chorus, before asking: “Was it / Honestly?” Long sings this final word — “Ho-nest-ly?” — as if he’s afraid to know the answer to his question, but wants to hear it anyway. The man in “SW3” is on the same street as the boy from “Walking” (“I’ve been wasting so much time / Walking the same street every night”), but now he’s wondering if there’s another street that he can go down.
Like “SW3”, certain songs on Certainty Waves could be siblings to tracks from other Dodos records, but some stand alone. “IF” and “Ono Fashion” are nervous-wreck alt-rock; the latter sounding like a mutant cross between the Wombats and Animal Collective circa Merriweather Post Pavilion. “Excess” is rumbling post-punk that drags Long’s croon down into a lower register. These sonic differences notwithstanding, the album still feels cohesive, primarily due to the band’s sheer play-to-the-point-of-tears energy.
There’s a story about the Beatles’ proto-metal masterpiece “Helter Skelter” that helps explain this energy. During the song’s recording, after the 18th take, Ringo Starr — exhausted, outmatched by the composition itself — threw his drumsticks across the studio and yelled: “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” It’s easy to imagine Long and Kroeber with blisters on their fingers after each track on Certainty Waves. Unlike Starr, though, their instruments are still in their hands.
For all of its charm, Certainty Waves makes it difficult to envision where the band will go next. Seven records and 12 years clinging to more-or-less the same aesthetic is a long time. But that’s the point: the Dodos have achieved such longevity by pushing this aesthetic to its limits, testing how far it will go — seeing how much it can hold. That’s the reason we should hope they keep walking.