Even for a band that’s made a career out of reinterpreting styles from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond, Dr. Dog’s latest release, Psychedelic Swamp, (ANTI- Records), is more meta you might think. The album is a rehashing of their first unreleased demo, originally recorded in 2000, and as such, it makes the band first time subjects of their own playful reflection game. A hot take could pigeon hole that sort of project as the work of a group that’s run out of ideas, but a more judicious approach points to a band that knows it’s strengths and is willing to explore the depths of those traits. After all, Dr. Dog have always been able to add quirky DIY charm to their fantastic, old-school songwriting, but to make a polished work out of their own first demo, which even they describe as nearly unlistenable? That’s a true challenge. It’s all pretty heady territory, but as their album release show at The Neptune proves, the visceral immediacy of the band’s music always comes first, giving the artists leeway to reach both inward and beyond while still delivering the gigantic hooks that fans know and love.
Similar to Dr. Dog, show opener Hop Along relies on incredible inventiveness to breath new life into a familiar sound. Though even more straight forward in their set up than the headliners, the four-piece squeeze the most out of a traditional vocal, guitars, drums, and bass approach. At first glance, a lot of the credit can go to lead singer Francis Quinelan, whose arresting vocals could illuminate just about any arrangement. Her deft variation between airy whispers and menacing growls commands attention in a way that steals the show without coming off as showy. Luckily, she’s far from having to carry around dead weight as the rest of Hop Along brings plenty to the table in the form of oblong riffs, crunching builds, and soaring releases. The band’s intricately arranged tracks find the sweet spot between crafted neatness and spontaneous power. With the pull of lo-fi indie, the twang of golden-era emo, and the aggression of raw punk, Hop Along, featuring largely songs from their Saddle Creek debut, Painted Shut, ignited the crowd as only the most captivating openers can.
Judging by the introduction, Dr. Dog were taking the "psychedelic" in Psychedelic Swamp seriously, as singer/guitarist Scott McMicken opened the set with reverb laden croons that fell just left of traditional western melody. Of course, that said, it wasn’t long before the band’s musical wanderings landed them back at the huge refrain of "Bring my Baby Back", the lead single from the new album. As audience reaction would attest, this was by no means an unwelcome move. To hear the vocalists of Dr. Dog take their respective turns in two and three part harmonies is a treat for all, and in that way the songs with the biggest choruses will always be the band’s bread and butter. Still, as with the far out intro, the group consistently colors outside the lines enough to keep their weirdness cred--whether it be with toy-like synthesizers or a stage set up that included a see-through drum set and light-up monitors.
In that sense, Dr. Dog have always walked a tight rope towards the indie pipe dream - accessible enough to sell out theaters but eccentric enough to never risk actually selling out. (Of course, in 2016 the concept of selling out has become cliché in its own right as indie starlets and pop giants collaborate more than ever.) Either way, as the band ripped through a 5+ song encore that had fans still clamoring for more, it became clear that Dr. Dog have come as close to perfection on their own terms as possible. Playing an engaging hour and a half long set while saving “Shadow People” and “Heart it Races” for said encore leaves one wondering how a band that never fully broke into the mainstream could have so many hits. Maybe, as evidenced on the new album they came to celebrate, it’s because the six-piece outfit can find the best in just about anything. At a time when music seems mostly focused on the neurotic and the self-obsessed, Dr. Dog’s penchant for anxiety lifting sonic exhales never seems to grow old.
The Philadelphia band's new album drops this Friday, April 27 via Thirty Tigers.
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