Album Review : Dr. Dog’s ‘Critical Equation’

I can remember driving 5 hours one way to Louisville, Kentucky to see Wilco at Slugger Field back in late summer of 2007. My wife and I were deep into Jeff Tweedy’s world at that point. I’d lost count of all the times we’d seen the Chicago band by then, but what was one more drive? One more show under our belts? The opening band was a Philly group called Dr. Dog. The name put me in mind of a Henson Muppet creation, but when these 5 guys hit the stage as the sun was dropping in the west and they sang a 5-part harmony version of the Star-Spangled Banner all visions of muppets were gone. The set that proceeded was a gritty, jangly group of soul-inflected indie rock, the likes of which I’d never heard. Part GBV, part Feelies, and a healthy dose of Beach Boys harmonious earnestness.

Wilco were great as usual that night, but Dr. Dog stole the show.

Besides a 5-hour drive in the middle of the night on I-65N and what would turn into a nasty case of pleurisy, I left that show a fan of Dr. Dog. I immediately bought up everything I could which was Easy Beat, Takers and Leavers EP, and their newest We All Belong. We All Belong, to this day, is one of my favorite albums. Pure, gauzy soul and pop with a touch of mildew-y age. Brian Wilson’s touch for vocalization and a wilted Grandaddy musicality sprinkled with Philadelphia’s storied soulful musical history. It pretty much hit every mark.

I continued to follow Dr. Dog along with each successive record(Shame, Shame might be their best.) As time moved on, though, their sound became routine with little detours. Not a bad thing when you find your voice, but once a band settles in there’s not much to distinguish one record from another. I’ve got Easy Beat, We All Belong, and Shame Shame. What more do I need?

Dr. Dog have just released their tenth LP called Critical Equation. Like what’s come before, it’s a beautifully orchestrated group of songs that bring together all their influences and sonic quirks to an even tighter, more honed-in sound. New ground broken? Not really. But I think Dr. Dog have the prescription for what’s ailing us all, if you ask me.

Going down the song list describing song after song is kind of pointless. If you’ve read this far, than more than likely you know what to expect when jumping into a new Dr. Dog record. Lead singers Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman still go back and forth singing. Where before there was a distinction between their songs, now it feels as if they’re both on the same wavelength. Even their vocals are melding together. This now gives Dr. Dog a cohesion that wasn’t quite there before.

This time out the band keeps it in second gear for the most part. Middle of the road janglers like album opener “Listening In” are scattered throughout the record. The band’s use of pacing and McMicken’s crackly vocals give the track a touch of age, which is pushed even further by farfisa organ and tasteful psychedelic touches. “Buzzing in the Light” might be one of the best Dr. Dog songs since Shame Shame‘s “Jackie Wants A Black Eye”. There’s a solo John Lennon vibe with this track. It seems to have formed perfectly. “True Love” is another highlight. It’s like a modern Buddy Holly song, or an early 80s Marshall Crenshaw song with Buddy Holly flourishes. McMicken’s “Heart Killer” has an 80s feel to it. Upbeat and fun, for sure. Closer “Coming out of the Darkness” starts out with Scott McMicken going for a Richard Manuel vocal and nearly getting it. The song has the usual Dr. Dog groove and settles in nicely.

There was something magical and sort of eerie about those first few Dr. Dog releases. The combination of the lo fi 4-track vibe, the wobbly multi-part harmonies, and the strangely familiar pop chord progressions gave you the feel of finding some long lost treasure from a band decades gone. It was like this ethereal version of The White Album put thru an early 90s indie rock machine. These Philly guys have grown up and expanded their sonic palate considerably since Easy Beat, way back before ‘dumpster fire’ was included in Webster’s Dictionary, but they haven’t lost that timelessness in their songwriting. They haven’t lost that ghostly, aged magic that made those early albums so endearing. Critical Equation is proof of that.


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