It’s probably not a good sign when a buzz band gives the first album following their breakthrough a name like Time To Die; there’s something nihilistic and defeating in the gesture, especially coming from an ecstatic folk band like The Dodos and not some goth-y synth-wave act. And Time To Die more than lived up to its title, capturing the sound of a band in the process of giving up. Disappointingly inert as it might have been, Time To Die helped lower expectations for whatever followed.
And with that disappointment in mind, The Dodos’s fourth album, No Color, has been greeted by the usual ‘return-to-form’ platitudes, which in this case are bewilderingly off the mark. No Color isn’t a bad album by any means — it’s great at times, never less than good, and certainly better than could reasonably have been expected — but there’s no sign here of return or retreat to their old strengths. The most surprising and satisfying songs here sound little like the plucky dorm-room pop of Visiter. Sure, “Black Night” isn’t a drastic stylistic departure from jittery tracks like “Jodi” and “Fools;” but whereas those exuberant early songs were limited by Visiter’s tinny production, “Black Night” is filled out with interesting textures, warm backing harmonies, and ascending, reverberant strumming. Even if the template is familiar enough, the execution is far more professional and developed than anything on their earlier releases.
As it stands, the least memorable material on No Color are those songs that haven’t been as carefully crafted as “Black Night,” songs that could have been culled from Time To Die, like the relatively generic “Don’t Stop.” That track is fairly solid, but it pales in comparison to the tracks that expand the limits of their stripped-down style (like the marimba-assisted “Hunting Season”) or those that explore a more conventional sound (like “Companions” and “Don’t Try and Hide It”) and make for an underwhelming conclusion to No Color. “Don’t Try and Hide It” emphasizes one of the album’s greatest assets: Neko Case’s backing vocals. Case sings backup on six of No Color’s nine songs, but she’s never more audible than on the aforementioned song. And though her presence is welcome, whenever Case’s voice rises above the mix, it has the unfortunate effect of reminding listeners of the limitations of Meric Long’s vocal range.
At its best, No Color is a narrow-scope triumph, but despite the album’s highlights, which are plentiful, there’s also a sense that The Dodos are spinning their wheels a little too hard. Visiter, despite its weak production, was musically and emotionally diverse. Other than the comparatively somber “Companions,” No Color is an unflaggingly peppy record. And sure, that percussive pep misdirects from their often dour lyrics, but Logan Kroeber’s clattering drums become monotonous, even grating at times, long before No Color reaches its conclusion.
But despite its shortcomings, No Color is a marked improvement over its predecessor. Ignore those who call it a return-to-form, because the tropes The Dodos fall back on are, at this point, their Achilles’ heel. Nevertheless, No Color is far from a monochromatic affair, offering hope that The Dodos haven’t yet finished expanding their palette.