It’s one small step
for mankind, one giant leap for the Philly popsters.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Of all the bands and all the bars and all the bar bands to
be found in the world, few have as much rough luster as the West Philadelphia
quintet Dr. Dog.
Terpsichore psychedelic pop with rich barbershop harmonies;
thick mirthful melodies spread thick with sticky rough-hewn rainbow jam; dense
reverberation and noisiness – that’s the Dog. That doesn’t count dreamy singer-songwriters
Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman’s creamy lead vocals and how those sounds act
like icing on an already tasty cake.
That’s an easy description of sillier Dog discs like Psychedelic Swamp (2001), Toothbrush (2002) and sturdier rockers Easy Beat (2005) and We All Belong (2007). But with Dr. Dog’s
new CD, Fate the ante has been upped,
the stakes made higher and the chips made more costly with the likes of “The Dearly Departed” and “Is It
Worth My Time?” showing off the Dog’s more woeful, weary side and an
instrumental weightiness surprising but hardly shocking. Plus the whole thing
“I don’t think we had any real intention to make a weightier
album,” says Leaman, the Dog’s bassist and co-leader. “I suppose those were the
songs we gravitated towards because they were the ones that were working.” That may mean that other songs
weren’t working as well. But if you know anything about Dr. Dog you know that “Working”
seems to be emphasized, because make no mistake – Dr. Dog works hard.
Ever since McMicken and Leaman were part of the nervous Philadelphia pop band,
Raccoon. The frantic-est of Philly’s eccentrics, Raccoon offered a quirky
Talking Heads-like twist to the usual coo of Beatles-like melodies throughout
that band’s initial tenure. There, in Raccoon-land Leaman and McMicken began
their collaboration, even though other friends like Andrew Jones lead the way.
“This is the way we’ve always done it,” starts Leaman, by
way of careful explanation. “The bones of any given song are written by just one
of us; the changes, the lyrics, the bulk of the structure. That’s what’s done
before we show the song to each other or the band. The recording of the song,
that’s where the collaboration comes in. All the flesh and all the hair.”
To that end, Leaman readily admits that the Dog is a fleshy being and that
they’ve cared for each other’s extremities as though they’re their own. “It
usually doesn’t matter who wrote it. The songs are Dr. Dog songs.”
Even when things aren’t totally hackey-sack smooth between
all members, every song is a Dog. “Don’t kid yourself. The vibe is not always
chill at Dr. Dog central, “says Leaman. “Things can get pretty heated, brutal
This goes in stark contrast to what gets said about the Philadelphia band –
patchwork-quilt happy hippie-ness and such – in print and on-line. “I don’t
care how people describe us, but it seems that “hippy” is used as an insult,”
says Leaman. “I don’t find it insulting. Because I really don’t think people
know what they mean.”
So then three questions come to mind in describing Dr. Dog’s
BLURT: when was the
last time somebody played hackey-sack?
T.L.: Anytime we’re out of the van, sometimes when we’re really feeling it,
inside the van.
BLURT: When was the
last time Dog smoked strawberry rolled joints
T.L.: Only if we’re
out of watermelon flavored papers
BLURT: When was the
last occasion in which you did mushrooms?
T.L: Last night during
a Ratdog cover band concert I streamed off line.
You can’t make that up.
The other thing you can’t make up is the wealth of good
feelings that seem to come their way as well as the nice vibes emanating from
each of the Dogs. Seriously, if you get around Zach Miller, Juston Stens or
Sukey Jumps, you just want to say something positive to them. My Morning Jacket
did when they helped push the Dog and their then-new Easy Beat CD when the good Dr. was MMJ’s touring mates. “Those guys
have always helped us out,” notes Leaman. “They showed us how to tour like real
Even fellow Philly bands showed the Dog camaraderie and
love. And that’s not something all Philadelphia
acts – save for the Roots – are known for. But within Dr. Dog’s circle there
are a bunch of players doing their own thing and hoping for the best for
everybody. “Buried Beds, Hoots and HellMouth, Make a Rising, National Eye – these
bands are all the real deal.” These are some of the better known Philly bands
that Dr. Dog’s befriended throughout their time in. Coming from Philly as I do,
I know few people who don’t dig the Dog and haven’t appreciated all Dog
That doesn’t mean that all their work sounds the same or
that there’s a necessary connectivity. While Leaman sees and hears no real
intentional connection among all Dr. Dog albums (“Can’t say that there’s a
direction we are headed, or a place we’re coming from”) he will joke about the
band’s karma in relationship to what Fate is and what its endgame became.
“None of us has done anything too heinous to anyone else. I
suppose if karma can apply to yourself, I’ve violated myself in unforgivable
ways; done irrefutable damage. And for that I am sorry.” He even tells himself
he’s forgiven and how much he loves himself before our chat’s end. As for the
real formulating behind and between Fate,
the idea at first was but one song – a dizzyingly psychedelic track that got
renamed “The Beach” – that seemed to touch on mortality and the inevitable. “We
had a lot of songs written about things you can’t really put your finger on, things
you know are there, that affect or relate to us but are somehow intangible. Once
we decided on the intangibles, we threw out the songs that didn’t fit.”
Fuller than their last two albums (thanks to Dog pal Brendan
Cooney who wrote the strings and horns for all three albums), Fate found their collaboration deeper
than ever before. There’s more nuance and muscle to the lines of harmony,
greater density to the weight of the flourish. For Fate, Dr. Dog wanted strings and horns as more than mere
ornamentation. They wanted integration. “We agreed that the strings and horns would
serve the same purpose as any other instrument, as opposed to sitting on top,”
states Leaman. “In turn, the lines are more nuanced not your typical block
harmonies or instrumentation.”
Along with its sense of weight forlorn in its melodies,
there seems to be an image that runs through Fate like rails – the several mentions of trains to be found
throughout the album.
BLURT: What’s with all the train stuff
is it sex, is it meant to portray an America gone by, a hard work ethic, some
sense of distance?
T.L.: The train goes
along with the idea of fate. The tracks are endless but the cars can’t waver,
can’t leave the rails. The lines have been laid in advance.
BLURT: Can y’all count
the amount of times you use that particular metaphor?
Lyrically, there’s more pragmatic resignation (“Uncovering
the Old”) to be found within Fate‘s
walls along with the woe the Dog has observed in previous efforts. “There has
always been a sense of forlorn in our songs,” notes Leaman, pointing out how
lots of the songs on We All Belong –
“Worst Trip,” “Die, Die, Die,” “Ain’t it Strange” – are downers of a the most
“I think we often try to offset the weight of the lyrics
with a lighter feel musically,” says Leaman, tempting the fates and Fate
itself. “Yes, it can be confusing. But a lot of our feel good songs were
written tip-toed on a stool.”
Spoken like a true gentleman on the edge.