Dr. Dog’s third full-length album, Fate, was released in July 2008 on Park the Van. Although the record does not mark much of a separation from their previous work, somehow it (and conversations with my good friend and musical provocateur Cory, as well as my older brother Christopher) got me to thinking about the fate of rock, indie or otherwise, as we sit here in the eighth month of 2008. What follows is a haphazard collection of thoughts about the record as I listened to it on a stormy Monday.
At first listen, Fate sounds much like Dr. Dog’s 2007 album We All Belong, at least in terms of approach. One could describe this approach as early 70s eclecticism, or, for the more literal-minded out there, it could also be described as ELO Harmonies + Beatles instrumental hooks + Band (more specifically Richie Manuel) lead vocals = Dr. Dog. (Of course, much has been written about the referential/reverential sound at work here, but what the hell; I’ll take a crack). Something about this record keeps me coming back, despite the fact that this may be one of the most derivative albums ever recorded. It is also a highly conceptual album, working through themes of inescapable destiny and the things lost to it.
A run-down of the actual music is perhaps in order. Fate opens with “The Breeze”. If nothing else, this track sets the tone for the rest of the record, if not Dr. Dog’s entire outlook. The lyrics are a call for almost fatalistic optimism. Each short stanza boils down to “If life is shitty, say ‘fuck it’, chin up, put on a Brian Wilson record.” This track also introduces one of the thematic core elements of the album: the major to major 7 to 7 to subdominant progression that is at the heart of a couple of tracks to follow. The vocals at the start are a little shaky; I almost feel that the boys bit off more than they could chew with some of the backgrounds here. The intonation doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders at certain points, but, well, it does the job of a leadoff song: it sets the tone, sketches the outlines of the album’s space.
Track 2, “Hang On”, features Dr. Dog’s Manuel-ish vocalist (as opposed to the singer on the first track, whose voice is higher and more nasal) making a bid for reconciliation with a companion. (Really, I’d be happier if he would just sing all the songs). Another major musical element is introduced: the George Harrison slide guitar lick. Parts of this track really do mesh into place well, as when the first chorus of “What you thought was a hurricane was just the rustlin’ of the wind” hits. “The Old Days” starts as an almost reggae-ish half-time groove that quickly coalesces into a regular beat underpinning lyrics which propose to deal with old things in new contexts even as the new threatens to spill back over into the old (which, really, just about describes Dr. Dog as a phenomenon). “Army of Ancients” tells the story of a man whom the changes/end times seem to have passed by. It’s a slower, melancholy sounding track that features a number of tension-building ascents of background vocals capped of by releases of “Whoa-ahh-yeah” from the leader. The mode here is the interrogative, only the rising tide of questions is met by drunken wailing from the track’s protagonist: “I’ll skip the sermons and stick to the booze” – a sentiment, which, again, seems to echo Dr. Dog’s general outlook of focusing on the past while trying to fit in with time marching inexorably onwards.
Track 5, “The Rabbit, The Bat, & The Reindeer”, is ELO through and through, and occasionally also sounds like Billy Joel and Carole King put together. The descending line, a little different than the one heard in the first track, is a prominent element again. This time our (high-pitched non-Manuel) vocalist accuses his companion of not really being good at love unless they pretend – and wonders if it wouldn’t be better to just go back to pretending in a final outburst of lyrics that pound on the tonic before slowly ascending to a repeating query: “should we pretend?” Lonely handclaps transition into what will end up being the album’s fulcrum, “The Ark.”
“The Ark” is such a direct reference to “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” and “Something” off of Abbey Road by the Beatles that one could nearly accuse Dr. Dog of plagiarism. Just about every element at work here – the key (D minor), the organ sound, the lead guitar sound, the aforementioned major to major 7 to 7 progression (straight Harrison on “Something”), the organ bursts, is straight off of the Beatles’ final record. More on this later; suffice it to say here that our protagonist is starting to question the shifting ground (and lack thereof) where he finds himself. It is a vicious rocker, and breaks the album in two…
…Because what follows is heartbreak. Our previously-defiant-but-now-unsure hero, perhaps in a fit of regret, faces his lover, who is dying before his eyes. He can’t deal with it and enters a state of heavy denial, accompanied by an organ that might as well have The Band’s Garth Hudson behind the console. The past, ever his friend, is fading on the lyrics’ “choo choo train rollin’ away”. It’s actually quite a gut-wrenching song about lost innocence, and the one song on the record where I feel that the more child-like vocalist really is quite effective. It would have to be child-like enough to get away with using the word “choo-choo” at least eight times. The next track, “100 Years”, tries to deal with looking back, but whenever the spectre of the past emerges, it is always in the guise of labor (a yoke and chain, Rebel Yell drunkenness, spasms of crying, working on a farm). All this with Lennon piano lines and references to (train) brakemen. The Band influence settles in ever deeper! The track fades out in a vamping swirl of reverbed backing vocals, evocative of so many memories creeping in from the past.
Track 9, “Uncovering the Old”, might just double as the band’s manifesto. Consider the opening line: “Start it over. A loan is such an ugly gain. Pay it back. Pay it forward. Nothing means nothing to me.” Nothing means nothing – everything means something, and even though things borrowed are not always ideal, they are often necessary – and ELO strings are always necessary.
The album’s penultimate track, “The Beach”, is a churning, stomping, heavy, song of almost nihilistic acceptance. “Fate has a funny way of coming around” ends three of the stanzas, stanzas of distaster and decay. That the track minorly winds its way to conclusion, only to be followed by the forgiving double ending of “My Friend.” This sudden switch of tone – this track is an uplifting, driving, fast track propelled by a fine 70s guitar riff and Kinks-esque drumming – feels a bit abrupt, almost manic, in fact. Following a song with a line like “They’ll creep through your windows to smother your dreams” with a second song with the lines “Keep on with the living / you’ll soon enough be dead” initially seems contradictory, but this last track is really just the flipside of the fatalistic coin: the desperate, act now because we’re “heading for the same disaster” side.
The fact that Dr. Dog grapple with these themes of fate the inescapability of history here makes sense, given that their general approach, as noted above, is largely a pastiche of late 60s and early 70s musical and sonic references. One cannot really argue with their skill as musicians or as detail-obsessed studio technicians (the music criticism business has commented rather exhaustively on their love for 24-track recording and crafting sounds that are deliberately mid-fi). One also cannot argue too strongly with their skill at writing a certain kind of indie rock song. But these very skills bring Dr. Dog very close, and perhaps too close, to the shoulders of the giants upon which they stand.
Their sound lingers somewhere near the border between reference and straight-up copy. This is, of course, not a quandary limited to Dr. Dog. It is at the very heart of current “indie” culture (and to an increasingly large extent, as the hegemonic powers absorb bits of this culture, the mainstream), where vintage clothing and eyewear, facial hair, hairstyles, drinks, movies, and modes of production find favor. Others have written extensively on this phenomenon, and it is, of course, nothing new – culture in the West has operated in a cyclical fashion more or less since the renaissance, one could say. Dr. Dog have raised questions with Fate not so much because of its methods, but rather, the degree to which those methods have been successful.
It is, of course, only their third full-length record. By most accounts, their first effort, Easy Beat, was a raw, exuberant exhibition of pop indie rock (see, for example, Sean Westergaard’s All Music Guide review). The aforementioned sophomore album We All Belong was the first manifestation of the 24-track maximalism which finds its fullest expression on the current release. The arc of Dr. Dog’s output would seem to suggest that there is nowhere left to go on the trail they’ve blazed so far without some kind of mutation, for it’s hard to see how they could add more tracks, more layers, more sounds, more referents, more stuff than one can hear at the end of “My Friend”, for example (which ends with a collage of sounds from the entirety of the album in a sort of life-flashing-before-the-eyes moment). It’s a clumsy comparison, but what will have to happen for Dr. Dog to create their Revolver, their Pet Sounds, their Low?
Or indeed, what will have to happen for any of the current generation of DIY indie-rockers to do this? Now, certainly, there are bands out there doing some pretty incredible stuff. And certainly, there are things happening within non-Western music. But indie rock, as it stands, has perhaps just run out of steam. Given the current situation media-wise in the West (youtube, iPods, myspace, extensive garage sale and flea-market record shopping, sampling, etc.), is it possible that there is nothing old left to make new? Is it possible that there is nothing left for the hegemonic indie scene to absorb, to regurgitate? Has everything been referenced? Or is it that the very idea of reference and incorporation has lost any sort of currency? (What is the point, Gogol Bordello, of just doing what the Pogues did, except with gypsy music?) Have we, as privieged, connected Westerners, paid too much damned attention to history? Have we read too much, listened and seen too much?
Eddie Van Halen*, in a May 1984 interview with Edouard Dauphin in Creem magazine, said that “I don’t even listen to the radio. I don’t buy records, I don’t listen to anything. I don’t mean that I think I’m too good, that I don’t have to – but I don’t get inspired by listening to anything, except maybe Debussy.” Was he on to something there? Was Eddie more avant-garde than anyone, even Creem, gave him credit for? Was Eddie a Reagan-era Thoreau? Regardless of what one thinks of the guitar playing on “Eruption”, his point here is apropos. He already felt too encased by derivative pop music, too encased by oldies, too encased by sound, that he felt that it was interfering with his ability to create new things. This was 24 years ago, when most of the Western world still had four TV channels, a radio, and a daily newspaper as their media. Certainly, Eddie had the opposite impulse that Dr. Dog seem to have; they seem to listen to every old album that they can to the point of exhaustion, and then set out to recreate and rearrange those sounds, those harmonies, those fidelities.
Indeed, it would take something of a superhuman effort to achieve the sort of single-minded (Debussy?) monasticism achieved by Mr. Van Halen in 2008 in the United States. Even if one could live in a cabin with no electricity in the mountains of West Virginia or Alaska, how can one forget/leave behind all of the music that one has already heard? The fact that anything that smacks of the alien-ly new struggles to find some sort of popular purchase, both literally and figuratively, only compounds the problem, even in the supposedly open-minded indie scene.
It is also potentially problematic, from certain points of view, to start to incorporate non-Western sounds into one’s rock music. It’s no secret that hegemony works by keeping itself vital by injecting otherness into itself, a sort of gene therapy for the powerful. It’s no secret that this opens up a whole host of questions about power, but that’s a discussion best saved for people far smarter and more well-read than me.
Have we simply run out of frequencies? Is it just getting harder and harder to make “new” sounds? There’s so many more people making so much more (bad) music nowadays, and the ideas of PROGRESS and CREATIVITY are ingrained into the American mind from a young age, and yet, music seems to be spinning its wheels. There are something on the order of 7,000,000,000 people on earth right now, and many of them have access to almost constant media of some fashion. Many of them make sounds, old and new, young and elderly. Postal workers in Ghana whistle and stomp in time-honored and honed tradition while they meter the mail. Groups of people in Anglican churches sing the same hymns that King Charles I sang. And CAN writes rock music that sounds like Mahler and Bach, rather than like Berry and Perkins. Where is the CAN of today, and indeed, could somebody pull off a CAN-like move today that hasn’t already been done by a 23-year old living in Olympia?
Ultimately, music is about tradition. It’s about figuring out who we are by playing where we come from. The fact that Dr. Dog’s third album is quite derivative is really only a problem of degree. Led Zeppelin = Willie Dixon. The Who = James Brown. And so on. To be sure, every once in a while, some genius/alien being will come along and make something that is so far removed from tradition, that degree seems to be out of the question. Captain Beefheart, though, made a record that was mostly full of Jimmy Reed-esque blues and doo-wop-inspired rock n’ roll before he made the utterly singular (for its day) Trout Mask Replica (which really still drew on those influences, but rearranged them almost out of audibility). (Neither record sold particularly well, of course). John Coltrane took a few (15) years to swing around to A Love Supreme. Sun Ra came from Saturn in a spaceship, so he fucking cheated. The point, here, is that it is probably impossible to have an original thought that isn’t comprised of previous input.
So what’s the problem, then? Here are five guys who unabashedly enjoy rocking. Who are good at rocking. Who rock with smiles on their faces. But these are five guys who also love The Band and Brian Wilson and Jeff Lynne and George Harrison, who love them so much that they want to sound just like them, write songs and cascade strings and slide on guitars just like them. They seem to have little interest, at least right now, in drawing on their influences to create a new direction, but it’s early days yet.
Fate bothers me, intrigues me, because it is a really, really derivative artifact (even the liner notes look like at least five other rock albums from the 70s) that I also happen to really enjoy. It bothers me because the retro fascination (it’s latest incarnation, anyway – remember The Sting?) is getting a little to self-congratulatory, methinks. And it bothers me because it feels a little like nobody can see a way out, because their noses are buried deep in the used LP section at Amoeba. It bothers me despite the fact that the very notions of growth and progress also bother me. I suppose all one can do is soldier on and see what happens, safe in the knowledge that, wherever music is going, there’s still about 5,000,000 records that one hasn’t heard, and never will hear, and it’s only a matter of time before Dr. Dog duplicates their bass sound.
*Thanks to Mr. Christopher Harwood and his apocryphal remembrances of a 13-year old past moment for the tip.