When Dr. Dog burst onto the scene with Easy Beat in 2005, I staunchly supported their rootsy Psychedelphia sound. When the kids cried “Wings ripoff,” I countered “Aviophobia!” (fear of flying). When they played Bonnaroo and the kids cried “Hippies,” I countered “Agoraphobia!” (fear of crowds). When the kids cried “NPR darlings! Joanna Newsom in drag!” I countered “Glossophobia! Euphobia!” (fear of public speaking and fear of hearing good news, respectively). When the critics cried “Lightweight! No substance!” I countered “Acute geliophobia!” (fear of laughter).
And now YOU, the reader, will have the opportunity to defend our beloved Dr. Dog by taunting me with cat calls of “Iatrophobia!” (fear of doctors) and “Cynophobia!” (fear of dogs), for I fear Dr. Dog have lost their way, like a whimpering wayward puppy. Yet I can’t find it in me to level an accusation of malpractice. Shame, Shame is Dr. Dog’s first release recorded at a ‘proper recording studio,’ and what fledglingly-brilliant, taunted band would not take up the opportunity to prove itself in the arena of Elliott Smith and Beck by recruiting producer Rob Schnapf to reign in its ramshackle rebelliousness? The problem is that, unlike so many folks in the business of self-recorded and -produced music, Dr. Dog are really good at it and continue to challenge themselves. The results of this experiment are not blasphemous by any means, but they have clearly lifted their collective leg to the fire hydrant of their former selves, in favor of cleaner and hipper pop. In my mind, this serves less to refute their McCartney comparisons than may have been the intention.
One thing that tipped me off to Dr. Dog’s entomophobic tendency (fear of insects, or in their case fear of Beatle comparisons), was seeing them on a bill years ago at Slim’s in San Francisco, sandwiched between the nauseatingly Caucasian reggae of Still Flyin’ (which make 311 sound like Buju Banton) and the saccharine-fey future-twee of Architecture in Helsinki. By comparison, Dr. Dog seemed like the only people in the room that had ever known any pain and did a remarkable job of transmogrifying their hurt into soulful and gleeful songcraft. Sincerity and good humor come to mind. When it came time to play “The World May Never Know,” they rushed the rhythm as if to fly through it before anyone could utter an “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” bass line comparison, doubtlessly motivated by their acute catagelophobia (fear of ridicule). The end result, though, was more McCartney country schmaltz than their recorded version, which in my mind recalled more the lazy Saturday morning cartoon Tootsie Roll commercial than the theme to ABC drama Life Goes On.
Shame, Shame does have some moments where they forge headlong into the comparisons that plague them, and fearlessly at that. “Station” not only evokes The Band in title, but blatantly invokes them in song structure, right down to the vocal harmonies and barroom colloquialisms. It is one of the stronger tracks to my ears. “Later” introduces a new set of derivatives, being equal parts The Clash, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and classic Dr. Dog off-kilter retro-ism. That should effectively stave off the Beatle-bleeding for a little while. “I Only Wear Blue” is the freshest-cum-familiar page in the Dr. Dog playbook; intricate production and noisy arrangement elevate this track to the status of brilliant pop that kids don’t buy. It has all the trappings — an inquisitive exposition and cathartic gospel revelry of a climax — but just couldn’t swim in the ocean of singles packaging. “Someday” is an odd hodgepodge of nearly broken-beat and ELO, and it certainly works, but it also highlights some of the moments where the more modern production techniques hinder their truly rockin’ spirit elsewhere.
So on the one hand, I don’t want to pigeonhole these fellows and tell them “You gotta make another Easy Beat, and then you can play at my club any time you want.” I’m really happy they are trying new things; but while Easy Beat is a timeless record — the performance, the production, it’s all there — this record sounds dated to me already. Where Easy Beat degrades their sonic textures into a comfortable gauzy, hypnagogic reminiscence, Shame, Shame’s is a digital degradation into a world of self-conscious techno-aged pop tricks. Welcome to the digital age, but you’ve got to work a lot harder here to stay on top of this game. Psychedelic basement rock production is replete with its own dangers for sure, but so far the Dog have quite successfully avoided being marred in marmalade sludge.
Any band that plays to Dizzy Gillespie’s sage axiom of keeping one foot in the past and one foot in the future would be wise to never firmly plant that forefoot. You never know what kind of future bugs you might squish with that future shoe — or perhaps “trudge forward, but not in nice shoes” would be more apt. In the hands of Schnapf, Dr. Dog are dressed to impress in some pretty nice shoes. I’m not about to suggest that they don’t deserve nice shoes (Ray Charles couldn’t even see, but his wingtips were always polished), but these boys got soul! Just listen to Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman sing together. They couldn’t be any more different, like ebony and ivory they complement, and you really can’t saddle one or the other with a Lennon vs. McCartney label. And shit, Toby can thump that thunderstick in a very funky, yet tasteful manner too. He’s been eating his Rick Danko Wheaties, for sure. You don’t hear funky bass that doesn’t get in the way of pop songcraft very often.
So, Dr. Dog, my prescription is such: continue your dromophobia cessation efforts, take some steps to further render your medomalacuphobia impotent, and last but not least: when ANTI- cuts the check for the production advance on your next record, rather than enlist a hip producer, score some California grass… lots of it. Take your vitamin D pills and get back in that basement.