Dr. Dog, Be the Void
By wes jakacki
February 7, 2012
Often in music, especially music criticism, we are constantly looking for the next big thing or focus on bands that are pushing the envelope and bending genres. What can often be missed, though, is the sheer enjoyment that can come from simply listening to a great song regardless of whether it innovates or not. Thus is the space filled by Dr. Dog, a band that unabashedly pulls no punches but simply takes their musical style from the three immortal “B” Bands of the '60s: The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Band. My initial feelings toward the scrappy Philadelphia quintet was hesitancy over their imitation-over-innovation approach, but ultimately the melodies and harmonies took hold, and the band has held a special place in my heart for the last five years. Their seventh album, Be the Void, sticks mostly to the classic Dr. Dog formula, perfected in albums like Easy Beat and We All Belong. It's their most noisy, rollicking record to date, although a bit inconsistent.
Be the Void opens with two of its strongest tracks in “Lonesome” and “That Old Black Hole.” “Lonesome” is classic junkyard dog rock ‘n’ roll, with howling pedal steel, bluesy harmonica, raggedy percussion and a fun mix of shouting and singing. While “Lonesome” sounds fun and carefree, “That Black Old Hole” relies on fun wordplay. It steers like a strong ship constantly picking up steam through the strong current of stormy production, constantly becoming faster and more assured. “These Days” keeps the pace going with a sort of driving '80s whiplash that reminds me of Arcade Fire when they decide to take a song at double-speed.
While Be the Void stands as a highly enjoyable ride, it undoubtedly gets stale at moments. “Do the Trick” gets fairly old in its repetition in the type of persistent song they have done much better in the past. “How Long Must I Wait” follows another standard Dr. Dog song formula with its reverb-heavy percussion, one-note piano line and the big sweeping bridge, but it isn’t feverishly catchy like other songs that fit this formula. “Over Here, Over There” has the same sort of manic build of “That Old Black Hole," but with much fewer fun studio tricks and harmonies.
Production-wise, Dr. Dog usually employs tight, well-orchestrated production with a plenty of reverb, much in the vein of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector’s production style. On Be The Void, the gang loosens their strings a bit and really lets it all hang out, more in line with their sound in the live setting. You would never hear songs like “Vampire” or “Warrior Man” on past Dr. Dog albums, as they just get loud and rambunctious without feeling the need to rein it in. This adjustment in philosophy make it a really an especially strong road trip album and make the thought of hearing these songs live rather appetizing. That doesn’t mean their three-part harmonies or melodies are any worse for the wear, though, as the raw approach nicely contradicts the pureness of the melodies.
Dr. Dog does bring a couple new tricks to the table in two of Be the Void’s biggest highlights in back-to-back treats “Vampire” and “Heavy Light.” “Vampire” slays with its boisterous lead guitar and a hysterical vocal performance from bassist/part-time vocalist Toby Leaman who sounds like another legendary bassist (McCartney) who was known for some incredible vocal rave ups. “Heavy Light” stands as a genre clash from its general post-punk aesthetic mixed with warm pop vocals, Indian guitar melodies, and dance hall piano and percussion, with it all being spliced together remarkably.
Other standouts include “Big Girl,” whose big bouncy hooks sort of plays like their “Baby You’re A Rich Man,” a diamond in the rough Beatles gem, and “Warrior Man,” which is a big slow-glam rocker that would make David Bowie proud.
Therefore, we land very much where we started. Dr. Dog doesn’t look to reinvent the wheel on Be the Void, but rather has created what is sure to be one of the most fun rock ‘n’ roll albums of 2012, even if it falls short of their personal bests.