I Reviewed Dr. Dog For A Website That Isn’t My Own And It Was Weird

[Reader’s note: remember when I said I was going to review B-Room for a website? Well, this is how that turned out.]

For their seventh studio album, B-Room, Dr. Dog built a whole new studio at home in Philadelphia with intentions of starting from the ground up. They recorded everything live and even brought in some horns. Seven albums ago, they were an overlooked Philly outfit, crossing psychedelia with folk harmonies and overt dissonance. Now, they’re criticized as an exhausted effort, recycling sounds of hits past. Constantly, Dr. Dog is compared to elite, culture defining 1960s bands (and they sometimes do it themselves) like The Beatles, The Band and The Beach Boys. But that holds them at an unfair disadvantage. (Honestly, it’s an unfair disadvantage for any band.)

The truth is Dr. Dog behaves exactly how they want to. They tour for the most part of every year, they make the music they want to make and have a huge fan following (one I am personally familiar with.) So measuring them by {those} standards of success, it looks like they’re doing everything right and there’s no need to question their charisma.

Between the six members, Dr. Dog finds a way to keep it interesting. For one thing, they have two lead singers: Toby Leaman on bass and Scott McMicken on lead guitar. Leaman’s voice is deep and raspy, providing a perfect tone for the ballads they sprinkle in on every record and McMicken has a more upright, pop-friendly soprano voice. The remaining four also contribute harmonies, giving their albums an actual three dimensions. Between seamless rhythm guitar work, keyboard, organ, piano and this time the cello and accordion, B-Room’s sound has a lot of depth to explore.

Openers “The Truth”, “Broken Heart” and “Minding The Usher” echo Dr. Dog’s past songwriting, using cute, rhyming lyrics and their go-to harmonies: its familiar, perfected territory. “Too Weak To Ramble” is an acoustic peace offering, showcasing Leaman’s vocal skills as a crooner. It leads the way into the second, meatier half. The half with reverbed vocals and organ solos – reminiscent of freakier 1960s bands like The Doors. “Cuckoo” hints to Ray Manzarek while Leaman’s voice serenades like Casablancas – a combination that doesn’t seem like it would work, until it does.

But then it gets weird. “Twilight” opens with a sharp pitch of what sounds like a bow playing a hand saw and McMicken comes in with lyrics that are too cliché, even for myself as a Dr. Dog superfan. They aren’t making the most exciting music out there right now. They’ve never been doing to that. The thing about Dr. Dog records are, when you listen to them, you know what you’re going get.

B-Room is a lot like their recent releases {Be The Void} and {Shame Shame}. How varied their songs are has become their consistency. Your favorites are the really great songs with hooks, perfect guitar work and memorable lines, while the other tracks are questionable, like throwaways. They lead us to believe that they have it in them, but the fact is, they’re really holding back. They include a chorus of out of tune saxophones, but too infrequently. Leaman curses on “Rock & Roll” and it only sounds out of character. Never mind that it’s just another song about how rock and roll can change your life. (You’d think there were enough of these songs already.) But none of this seems to matter to Dr. Dog. They’ve always been moving in the right direction with composition and song progression, but the songs on B-Room are too sprinkled with mundane lyrics. This record just feels routine.

In the end, though, they’re a great band that won’t conform to negative reviews and they haven’t for eleven years and counting. (They are also an amazing live show.) Dr. Dog are fearless and content to be in the B-Room. They rest comfortably outside the industry standard and let it lie. I’d like to think that they could make another record like 2008’s perfect {Fate}, but something leads me to believe they won’t. (And as a fan, I can’t hold it against them.) B-Room isn’t a Dr. Dog classic, but it’s a safe bet.

[This appears over at Spectrum Culture. It will be my last review for them.]