Review: Dr. Dog’s Be The Void (playing Electric Factory March 24 and 25)
Over the course 10 years and seven albums, Dr. Dog has spent a lot of time looking back. Back to the old days (as we heard on 2008’s Fate), or back to see where all the shadow people have gone (on 2010’s Shame, Shame). It’s funny, then, when an album touted as the band’s big look back, a return to its own old days—to the fuzzy, buzzing tones and minimally-produced immediacy of home recordings and 2005’s Easy Beat—finds Dr. Dog more in the now than ever before.
“I don’t want to fight, but constantly I’m ready,” sings Scott McMicken on “That Old Black Hole,” the lead-off single from Be The Void (released last Tuesday on Anti- Records). It’s surprising enough to hear McMicken, he of the ordinarily placid demeanor, discuss fighting and inner tension with such grounded candor. But the biggest shock is the point when you realize through the sonic grit and humming amplifiers, the peaked vocal counterpoints and smashed drumbeat shuffling the music along, that what you’re hearing is punk-rock surface dressing for a timeless rock-and-roll song beneath. Yes, Eric Slick’s blown-out drum tones may aesthetically recall the drums on “The World May Never Know” (which opened Easy Beat), but this is some next-level stuff here. It’s also evident in “These Days,” powerhouse bassist Toby Leaman’s true entrance on the album. (He sings the opening track “Lonesome,” but that song is a simplistic drag of a false start and I recommend starting listening on “Black Hole.”) The addictive beat of “Days” zooms along as guitarist Frank McElroy instrumentally harmonizes with McMicken, and Leaman’s bass chug-a-lugs to an instantly memorable melody and emphatic vocal: “I hate when people say ‘those were the days.’ Well, what are these then?”
The focus is on the present in the lyrics, as well as the playing. The band locks in like pros early on, and keeps it up as Be The Void progresses. Leaman gets down and dirty on the lusty boogie of “Vampire” (possibly the first rock song to make a metaphor out of Marcellus Shale), while McMicken explores his odd soul leanings on the sing-song “Heavy Light.” It all comes together on “Warrior Man,” where rhythms from percussionist Dmitri Manos mix with Zach Miller’s Hammond organ to slam the ensemble into a stack harmony overdrive of epic proportions. It gets loud, and then yields to the quiet, contemplative dénouement of “Turning The Century.”
Be The Void might sound like a return to the raw, spontaneous early days; it might also capture the fantastic-live-band thing better than any Dr. Dog release since the early ’00s. But it’s not an album that the Dr. Dog of the early ’00s could have possibly made. This is the product of a decade of growth, of learning, of progressing from being decent songwriters to great ones, from being basement eight-track buddies to seasoned professionals. This is the sound of Dr. Dog growing into the band that it is, while it sentimentally yearns to sound like the band it was.