One might wonder if one’s music player is broken the first time one hears Office Dog’s full-length debut album Spiel. The New Zealand trio sound as if one is hearing three different records simultaneously. Singer-songwriter Kane Strang, bassist Rassani Tolovaa, and drummer Mitchell Innes don’t seem to be playing together or even in contrasting ways to each other as much as each musician clatters about as if they are ignoring what else is going on in the same sonic space. It’s purposely distracting. That’s kind of the point. The superficial cacophony makes the listener an active participant in creating what one hears as music.
Office Dog aren’t the first alternative rock group to employ this strategy, or even the first trio to do so. Yo La Tengo might be their godparent, and that band’s noise pop always wore their influences on their sleeves. The Kiwis keep things simple. The instrumentalists echo short riffs to emphasize the basic melodies and tempos before moving to the next set of grooves. On tracks such as “Cut the Ribbon” and “Tightropes”, the players take turns improvising refrains over each other’s grooves. Meanwhile, the simple nursery rhyme lines, like “Back to back / side to side” and “All fine in time”, are sung repeatedly to reiterate the minimalism.
The fact that nothing is really going on in Spiel‘s lyrics suggests the observational nature of the material. Strang sings in a strained voice, although it is not for the usual reasons that vocalists do so (like a change in pitch or volume). Instead, it’s as if he’s telling one what he sees and then cranes his neck or turns his head to get a better view. What he witnesses remains unvaried. Only he adjusts.
Strang spells out his strategy on “Antidote”, which begins by noting that “Nothing with me / Spun my head ’round / Breathed it in / And it was something like an antidote.” In other words, altering one’s perspective offers relief in and of itself. Everything may seem too much the same. But the answer to living in stasis is uncomplicated. All it takes is a simple shift of view. The object of vision may not have transformed, but the subject has.
Breath, as mentioned above, is also important. Office Dog’s use of repetition also prevents the players from catching their breath. On songs like “Gleam”, drummer Innes never stops pounding the skins, and when he does, it’s a sudden stop that jars more than relieves. This impacts how the listener absorbs the music. One waits for a break that doesn’t come. “Cold and clean / Right on time / Get in line,” Strang croons over nasty guitar licks. He stretches the single-syllable words to emphasize the inherent militarism being described. Who or what is meant remains ominously vague.
Office Dog initially sound gloomy. Tolovaa’s bass offers a low and steady presence that adds a heaviness to the music. But a careful listen suggests a band having fun. After all, the word spiel can mean “play” in German and associated languages, as well as slang for a rehearsed bit meant to influence the recipient. There is nothing weighty going on in the lyrics. Think of Spiel as an instructional audio asking one to listen, turn one’s head, and hear the music again. Get it? Got it. Good!