Let's get this out of the way. Dr. Dog is an awful name for a band — somewhere between Hoobastank and the Goo Goo Dolls on the Awful Band Name Continuum. But the group itself — five guys from Philadelphia who've been playing together since 1999 — is one of the most adventurous of the past decade.
Over the course of five albums, starting with 2002's Toothbrush, they've mined a sort of '60s-influenced indie rock that started out low-fi but has since grown into full, kaleidoscopic, Brian Wilson-style productions. Their latest album, Shame, Shame (which was released earlier this year), is their biggest and most consistent — a collection of baroque pop songs that sounds like it dropped in from a 40-year-old acid party.
Until recently, Dr. Dog have been mostly an insular band. Singer-bassist Toby Leaman and singer-guitarist Scott McMicken rounded up the group, wrote the songs, and recorded the albums in their home studio. But they wanted to try something different on Shame, Shame. So they hired Rob Schnapf (who's worked with Beck and Elliott Smith) to produce, and they went to New York to record.
They're happy with the way Shame, Shame turned out. But Leaman says they probably won't be making an album like this again anytime soon. "We thought we'd go away and make this record and it would be awesome," he says. "But that's never the way we worked, and it turned out none of us really liked working like that."
Schnapf certainly adds new textures to songs like "Shadow People" and the title track. And the layers of sound running through the album are more disciplined this time out. The setup is one Dr. Dog are used to, since they usually head into the studio with every voice and instrument mapped out. But there were problems with this new structure, starting with Schnapf's perfectionism. "We thought it would be easier than it was," says Leaman. "We tried the best we could, going in head first."
Still, Shame, Shame is the band's toughest-sounding album. The guitars rock harder and louder, and for the first time the group's abrasive live sets are somewhat captured on record. But peel away the bubbly riffs, the zigzagging keyboards, the Beach Boys harmonies, and the Band-like camaraderie, and you're left with a pretty bleak collection of songs, lyrically speaking.
"Station" and "Shadow People" are world-weary tracks inspired by the wide gap found between Philly and the road. And the characters walking around in "Jackie Wants a Black Eye" might be borderline depressive. "That's where we were as a band when that was happening," says Leaman. "A lot of personal relations in the band were kind of strained at that point. And it seemed like we were plowing away on the road for [a long time]. The next record should be more upbeat, since we all feel more grounded now."
It's easy to miss all this hopelessness if you focus just on the music. Dr. Dog fall somewhere among the B's in your record collection: the Band, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles are the main reference points. On Shame, Shame they disguise some of these influences with a wider aural scope. Leaman says it's just a matter of trusting themselves more these days, even if that means occasionally falling back on what they're most familiar with.
"Unless you're David Byrne, there's a limited amount of things you can write about," he says. "He can write about a brick, but most people can't do that. Our relationship with the world around us — I don't think we'll ever stray from that. That's our comfort zone."
Dr. Dog are back on the road — in fact, they're rarely off it for long. Their new tour lasts a month. And then the quintet will head home to Philadelphia and regroup for a new album (some songs are already written and being played onstage).
Leaman isn't really sure where they'll take the new music in the studio, but he's pretty sure Dr. Dog will be returning to their homegrown roots. "We all have a way of talking that we all understand," he says. "If you say you want something to be cloudy, everybody in the band knows what we're talking about. But those words don't mean the same thing to everybody. How do you tell someone that something isn't woody enough?"
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