Dr. Dog Tread Water on Their Tenth Album 'Critical Equation'
Philadelphia's Dr. Dog have a new label and a handful of winning songs, but all too often, the results are lackluster.
27 Apr 2018
Philadelphia's Dr. Dog thrive on atmosphere. Their woozy, neo-psychedelic sound certainly has its place, and they've managed to mine that vibe over a span of nine albums. And while groove-oriented soundscapes abound in their music, they're also equally adept at throwing in some sturdy pop hooks. The announcement earlier this year that their tenth album, Critical Equation, would be a departure from their normal sound is a bit misleading. If you're a Dr. Dog fan and love what they do, chances are you won't be disappointed. But more critical listeners may hear these songs and feel there's something lacking.
Critical Equation – the band's first album on Nashville's Thirty Tigers imprint, after several years on Anti- Records – is heavy on the slow-to-mid-tempo grooves that have been Dr. Dog's bread and butter for ages. Opening track "Listening In" is a lazy, hip-swaying tune that occasionally shifts into lower gears with Pink Floyd keyboard flourishes (it should be noted that the downbeat "Night" is also heavily Floydian). The second track, "Go Out Fighting" speeds things up a notch with reverb-heavy lead vocals and a funky edge that invites comparisons to their similarly retro-leaning cousins My Morning Jacket. By the third track, the pleasant, Tweedy-meets-Lennon "Buzzing in the Light", the average listener will probably feel the urge to put on a fresh pot of coffee.
But when the tempos begin to rise and the adrenaline kicks in, Critical Equation often produces excellent results. "True Love" is a smart, compact rockabilly ode to, well, true love. Unique instrumentation, killer hooks and charming lyrics ("Lovesick in some backwoods bayou / Lovesick in town / Gonna need to call the CDC / 'Cause it's going around") are almost enough to make you forget about the rest of the album's shortcomings. Likewise, "Heart Killer" is another winner, a slice of psychedelic power-pop that recalls Wilco's Summerteeth, vintage Big Star and more recent Blitzen Trapper offerings. "Under the Wheels" is another retro delight, a bluesy classic rock shuffle that still manages to sound fresh, thanks to well-placed hooks and a band firing on all cylinders.
But for every "True Love", there's a clunker like the title track, an aimless puff of a song that can't even muster up a decent lyric. In fact, "Gettin' drunk on alcohol" is probably the worst line in rock and roll since Sammy Van Hagar warned us that "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time." What else would you get drunk on? Although, to be fair, songs like "Virginia Please" deliver in the abstract poetry department, with the evocative chorus "Virginia Please / I'm on my knees underwater."
Critical Equation is an album with a split personality. There are exceptional songs with tremendous potential to be played loud and often, but there are also several glaring examples of laziness as if the band was resigned to tossing off tunes they knew would just be background music at a suburban gathering of stoners. Dr. Dog is a band that can write a hell of a great song. But on Critical Equation, they're mostly treading water.