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Fan's best friend
Seven albums into their career, Dr. Dog's pack of musicians continues to please.
Dr. Dog is a band impossible to hate. They are just that good. No one says, “Dr. Dog? I hate those guys.” Or, “Dr. Dog? Way overrated.” (This is assuming you know who Dr. Dog is. You should.)
Hear the Philadelphia-bred band’s music and you see why. The sound of Dr. Dog is oddball, happy-go-lucky, psych-fuzz, folk pop, blues rock. Golden harmonies and wicked little nuances in the scrappy, dance-worthy rhythms. Melodies that keep resurfacing in the mind long after the music has acoustically disappeared. Dr. Dog’s music is untucked, button-up-shirt music. A little frazzled but still presentable. The second-wind sound of early morning, shambolic revelry.
Even when the lyrics are not fun and games, the band delivers a catchy hook. Check out the band’s “Lonesome” from the February album Be the Void or “Jackie Wants a Black Eye” from their 2010 album Shame, Shame. These are tough tunes lyrically, but the music is freewheeling, delivering a gut punch of a lyric such as the refrain of “Lonesome”: “What does it take to be lonesome? Nothin’ at all.” The music of Dr. Dog is just something most step-above-middle-of-the-road music fans enjoy. (Let’s not say all, because some music fans are militant in their dislikes.)
So how does this all work? How has Dr. Dog, over the course of seven albums and a dozen years as a band, struck such a genuinely appreciated sound? Well, it starts with guitarist and vocalist Scott McMicken, and bassist and vocalist Toby Leaman — the band’s founders and songwriters. (The pair are joined by rhythm guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos.)
Leaman and McMicken first started playing music together in the eighth grade and have remained friends and bandmates pretty much since then. And when Dr. Dog sheds members, the pair are the glue. Now though, or at least for the last two years, Dr. Dog has remained constant. About two years ago, the band added Slick and Manos. And as the two have woven their way into the sound fabric of the band, the result has been a new kind of Dr. Dog.
“I couldn’t be more happy those guys joined the band,” says McMicken when reached via telephone last week at a tour stop in Orlando, Fla. “I’m still just in awe of the opportunity to play music with them. I’ve learned so much from both, and I think we all have. But what I feel like they are really doing is ... enhancing two major tenets of what I’ve always understood the band to be or what I’ve always been into: a balance between true respect for traditional music, which we are a part of and which are our influences, and then this free and detached abstraction that likens itself to the psychedelic side of things.”
This new, enhanced sound of Dr. Dog will be explored more on the band’s next album. The plan is, finish this tour, celebrate the holidays with loved ones, tend to hobbies and reconvene in the new year around mid-February to work on a new album. But the band won’t be working out of their beloved recording studio — Meth Beach — in Philadelphia where Be the Void was recorded. Or at least, that’s the plan.
“We’re going to move out of our old recording studio [Meth Beach], a place where we have worked forever,” McMicken says. “It’s served us well for a number of years, but I think we all crave something a little more isolated. It’s in a pretty rough spot in the city. It feels great inside, but you are really confined to those four walls.”
The plan for recording the new album is finding a spot outside of the city. Maybe about 30 minutes outside. More land. More trees. A fire at night. Pull a Led Zeppelin at Headley Grange. Go rustic.
The evolution of the band also includes opening up the songwriting process. For each of Dr. Dog’s previous albums, the songwriting has been split between Leaman and McMicken, but now McMicken says “we are all willing to let go of any old ways that we have become accustomed to working.”
“I feel that for us as songwriters it feels less like letting a craft go and more of expanding it,” he says. “I feel less in control of how to make music than I ever have, and it seems weird saying that after more than a decade of doing this, but what it really feels like is very exciting.”
The idea is collaboration. Song structures still provided by Leaman and McMicken, but the tune additions being more open. Manos, also a member of Arizona’s “alt-alt, crumbly western, falling-rock band” Golden Boots, uses instruments from battery-powered Casio keyboards to sound-generating pedals in creating cinematic music and “weird, abstract sounds,” McMicken says. After popping up on a few Be the Void tracks, Manos’ sound manipulation talents might find their way more into Dr. Dog’s recorded music. And Slick, who played in a trio with King Crimson’s Adrian Belew before joining Dr. Dog, possesses a “fundamental mastery of his instrument,” McMicken says. “He does all the things that a drummer can do to make your life so much easier.”
So the future of Dr. Dog is exploring new musical ground in new surroundings. But whatever this new Dr. Dog sounds like, it’ll be Dr. Dog and musical fans will appreciate it. How could they not?
“There’s a lot of excitement in the band about the next record as far as the process and what everyone is most interested in right now,” McMicken says. “Just like Be the Void felt like one step in a new direction as far as a collaborative spirit that was brought to the table and enhanced greatly with Eric and Dimitri joining the band. Be the Void was our first album process with them, and it showed a lot of new opportunities and potential. Having done that, I think we realize we can stretch out even further. Working from the live band motif. There’s a new direction brewing.”
SEE THE SHOW
Dr. Dog visits Rev Room on Thursday night. The 18-and-up show starts at 8:30 p.m. with Cotton Jones, a lo-fi, harmony-heavy, indie folk band that Dr. Dog singer and guitarist Scott McMicken says “is absolutely one of my favorite new bands out there right now. What they do is a beautiful thing. Make sure and get there early.” Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 day of show.