As you look at this album’s cover or pour over some of the band’s hype, you might not expect much from Dogs (no “the”). They seem like one of those groups that kicked around the London scene aimlessly until some Diet Coke-slugging A&R rep was ordered to find “some bands that sound like those Frank Ferdinands”.
The beginning of Turn Against This Land offers a glint of optimism. The sound is hazy: A too-close guitar scrapes out some notes, a far-off piano player is playing some melody only a bit more complex than “Chopsticks”. Maybe this will sound like Radiohead! After all, most of the band members are from Cambridge. Then another guitar starts playing eight-fuzzed out notes, straight down the scale. Still interesting — maybe they’ll sound like King Crimson! Right when your hopes are cresting, a drum comes in, then a bass, both playing a thudding rhythm that you guess is going to accompany some Strokes or FF-simulation. And so it does. All of your instincts were correct: There is nothing new or surprising about Dogs.
The blame could be spread from the offices of Island to the band’s earliest musical tutors, but culprit number one is vocalist Johnny Cooke. He’s one of the estimated eight hundred thousand British singers to hear The Jam’s singer/dictator Paul Weller and decide “I’m as moody as him, so I can sound like that!” Weller could simmer down and sing quiet or soulfully when he wanted to, but Cooke can’t. The same shredded vocal chords approach a slow song, a snarky verse, or a fist-pumping chorus. Cooke can dash off a great wise-ass lyric, like “I went and burned the bridges at the weekend/ And now there’s nothing left but another week to end” from the opener “London Bridge”. But that doesn’t go in the “ways we’re different from every other British band” pile.
But Cooke isn’t squandering the talents of a fantastic group of musicians. The work of guitarist Luciano Vargas and the rhythm section runs the gamut from “boring on speed” to “boring on ‘ludes”. Songs proceed pretty much how you’d expect from their intros — a fast bit here, a drum roll there. Vargas’ guitar solos consist of him throttling the neck, scratching a little, and hoping it sounds like My Bloody Valentine.
This combination, mystifyingly, has already turned three songs into singles for the band’s UK market. But on one of them, “End of an Era”, the steals from The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand outnumber the shouts from Cooke, and the result is actually quite fun. On one of the album tracks, “Tarred and Feathered”, a slower tempo and some guitar dampening is mixed into the formula. That works, too. There’s nothing inherently harmful about a band like Dogs packaging less inventive takes on the current Britpop formula. Sixties rock fans are happy to have their Assocation or Grass Roots records to fall back on when they get tired of the groundbreaking Beatles songs. The same factor’s at play here. If you’ve played out your copy of You Could Have It So Much Better, it’s nice to have something similar and non-threatening to spin until FF release some more b-sides.
But don’t let it look like you’re encouraging them.