Dr. Dog are a hard band to find anything to complain about. You can say their music is simple, that it’s nothing incredibly special or unique, but to say that they’re BAD? That takes a special kind of hatred that I can only imagine people like Donald Trump or Martin Shkreli being able to muster up. Dr. Dog are one of the few indie pop artists who consistently turn out albums that just flat out bring a smile to my face – and that is no easy feat considering how jaded and cold blooded I am when it comes to criticising indie pop.
Their new album The Psychedelic Swamp (which actually consists of re-recorded versions of the first album which remaining original members Scott McMicken, Toby Leaman and Zach Miller wrote together) is no exception – a pitch perfect pop record that maintains the best elements of the band, acknowledging their history and poking fun at themselves, while simultaneously pushing their sound forward ever so slightly into interesting territory.
True to its title, the album is considerably hazier and murkier than the clean, rootsy sounds of the band’s past couple albums. The titular wetland is referenced frequently in the lyrics, and there are songs with titles like “Swampadelic Pop” and “Swamp Is On”, as well as brief interludes with titles like “Swamp Descent” and “Swamp Inflammation”. However the album doesn’t feel like a concept album, unless the concept is smoking weed and playing music in a swamp.
Dr. Dog have played with the idea of interconnected songs before, most notably with “My Friend”, the stunning closing track to what is arguably their best album Fate, which featured lyrics about accepting the inevitability of death, before breaking into a musical montage that featured reprises to many of the catchiest riffs from the entire album. Yet unlike most bands, even when Dr. Dog reaches for loftier musical goals, they remain convincingly unpretentious.
There seems to be an element of sly humor throughout, acknowledging that the songs on the album were written before they had really nailed down their craft yet. Auxiliary exotic instrument man Dmitri Manos plays a bigger role than ever before, with various analog synths and drum machines appearing throughout. Standout “Badvertise”, which is probably the heaviest song the band has released thus far, even features a theremin on the chorus.
Its intentionally bad title and hilariously bad music video help maintain the band’s signature whimsy as pulsing distorted bass, organ and an ominous chant of “here today, gone tomorrow” show a darker side to their music. Conversely, songs like album opener “Golden Hind” and lead single “Bring My Baby Back” have a warm, folky atmosphere to them, more reminiscent of their earlier records.
While Dr. Dog are one of those bands that some will say you “have to see live to get the full experience”, their sound here is fuller and more energetic here than it has ever been before, edging closer to that energy they bring on stage with them. With simple additions like the fuzzy slide guitar on “Good Grief” and the vocal double-tracking on “Dead Record Player” increase the energy without sacrificing the old school analog aesthetic that has defined their sound for their whole career. The production is a tad cleaner, the instrumentation a little bit more intricate, the vocal harmonies bigger and bolder – all in the subtlest ways.
This album was never meant to reinvent the wheel, in fact quite the opposite considering where it originated. Even if they were given an unlimited budget and the nicest studio and equipment in the entire world, it’s hard to imagine Dr. Dog ever growing out of their Beach Boys-meets-The Band aesthetic; and as long as their albums keep sounding this good, there’s no reason for them to do so.
Would it be cool to see them build on the heaviness that lies in “Badvertise” or the washy ukulele-laden vibe of “Swamp Descent” and deliver something totally different from the name they’ve built themselves? Sure it would. But in the end, I’m willing to take anything this band has to give. Dr. Dog’s The Psychedelic Swamp is out now, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Nicholas Hart