By Jake Offenhartz, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 1, 2013
Earlier this year, Dr. Dog embarked on an ambitious, laborious project … and then turned its focus to music. Before recording B-Room — the band’s eighth album — Dr. Dog spent months working tirelessly to convert a former silversmith mill into a brand-new studio. The psychedelic rockers then brought this spirit of do-it-yourself collaboration into the recording process, opting to forgo their usual layering and overdubbing, and instead taping most tracks as a live band. The result is Dr. Dog’s most soulful record to date, showcasing an emotional earnestness that often goes unseen beneath the indie-rock veterans’ sprightly luster.
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Structurally, B-Room plays like a collection of timeworn snapshots, a patchwork of the past in which lightweight, 1960s-era pop can sit comfortably next to lo-fi indie folk and psychedelic funk. And while Dr. Dog has always embraced these influences unapologetically, one senses a renewed commitment to push the boundary of the genre even further. It’s surprising, then, that B-Room still manages an impressive cohesion, with each song building on the previous in a logical yet unexpected manner.
The album opens with “The Truth,” a breezy, Motown-influenced track that moves just slow enough to make the listener miss the danceable, summery sing-alongs on the band’s previous album, Be the Void. This inclination is quickly rewarded as singer/bassist Toby Leaman delivers the necessary shot of energy on the next track, with the instrumentally upbeat “Broken Heart.” But with the opening lines, “Love for me just been a walk in the park / It doesn’t really matter / It never really mattered,” the song quickly defies any expectations derived from the initial cheerful guitar work. While certainly catchy and on some levels simplistic, “Broken Heart” introduces themes of nihilistic detachment that will lie consistently under the surface for the remainder of the album.
This struggle with despondency is most evident on the piano-heavy “Distant Light.” Culminating with lines, “Following the distant light / Don’t I know if I keep walking I’ll never touch it / But as long as I move it’ll shine on me,” the song is a meditation on maintaining optimism — however unfounded — in the face of purposelessness.
Without question, B-Room’s standout track — and also its most unprecedented — is the bare-bones ballad “Too Weak to Ramble.” Backed only by Scott McMicken’s acoustic guitar and delicate harmonies, Leaman’s harsh bellow plays like a lament to the false hopefulness of “Distant Light.” It’s a rare moment where the album’s undercurrent of hopelessness is brought to the surface. With Leaman’s voice reaching a fever pitch then nearly shattering alongside an increasingly soft guitar part, this divergence from the norm feels like a much-needed reprieve.
Closing the curtain on an album’s worth of cross-genre experimentation, B-Room’s final track, “Nellie,” sees Dr. Dog at its most Dr. Doggian — though still a far cry from what anyone could call conventional. Behind a steady electric piano, Leaman and McMicken harmonize McCartney and Lennon-style, wailing in unison, “You know you love her but do you really know her … I can’t help myself from going wandering with her from room to room.” And while the influence of both The Beatles and The Beach Boys is sonically evident, “Nellie”— and the rest of B-Room — is simply too existentially burdened to be placed in the realm of sunshine pop.
Dr. Dog has made a career of muddling the edges between real and psychedelic, emotive and desolate, impassioned and hopeless. It paints the world in vibrant colors, just barely concealing an ominous aura that occasionally reveals itself. That descent into nihilism looms urgently on B-Room, though thanks to a heavy varnish of Motown-soul, Dr. Dog’s preoccupations sound better than ever.