Videos by American Songwriter
“Whenever you spend time on harmonies, people say it’s a throwback,” exclaims Toby “Tables” Leaman over the phone from Dr. Dog’s brand spankin’ new digs in Philadelphia after their fall tour with The Black Keys. He and songsmith bandmate Scott “Taxi” McMicken readily admit that they owe a lot to the work of Brian Wilson-even spending weeks picking apart Pet Sounds‘ harmonies-which can result in some critics growling on and on about their influences, from The Beatles to E.L.O.“Whenever you spend time on harmonies, people say it’s a throwback,” exclaims Toby “Tables” Leaman over the phone from Dr. Dog’s brand spankin’ new digs in Philadelphia after their fall tour with The Black Keys. He and songsmith bandmate Scott “Taxi” McMicken readily admit that they owe a lot to the work of Brian Wilson-even spending weeks picking apart Pet Sounds‘ harmonies-which can result in some critics growling on and on about their influences, from The Beatles to E.L.O.
Yet, Dr. Dog’s sound reveals much more depth; throw in a steep helping of Motown, some smooth-whipped soul rhythm, a dollop of doo-wop and you have a plate of something far from scraps.
Until last year’s EP, Takers and Leavers, Toby, Scott and bandmates Zach “Text” Miller, Juston “Time” Stens and Frank “Thanks” McElroy used eight-track tapes to record, producing a distinct analog sound-and a lot of tapes. “[Back then] we would take a song a day, bash it out and whatever it was…it was,” Leaman says. “If we didn’t like it, it was abandoned. Digital is much more manageable, and allows us to spend more time on the parts of each song.” With the 24-track, their recently released opus, We All Belong, retains a DIY texture, but not after some new tricks-and instinct.
“When recording the new album, we didn’t come in with any pre-conceived ideas for the final outcome, but with learning the new gear, three months in the studio…we began experimenting with some ballads, lengthy codas and very expansive sounds,” McMicken explains. “But after some touring we began to rein ourselves in and hit the studio again to focus on the songs our old recording techniques produced. We stopped untangling cords to pre-amps, and we pulled out the same two mics we always use out of the closet.”
McMicken elaborates, “As important and amazing as all the new equipment was, we needed to revisit the immediacy we were used to, and the energy we used to put into a single take.” It is this dual progression and refinement of energies-one of the stage, the other the studio-that Dr. Dog has come to grips with.
The resulting album arises as a collection seasoned with those aforementioned vocal harmonies, driving, toe-tapping accompaniment and more polished presentation with the accustomed lo-fi hue. “Worst Trip” expounds on the misery of the road and found its way onto the Fast Food Nation soundtrack. “The Girl,” told from the perspective of a fella down on his luck, “came from a really good point-didn’t require as much push and pull,” McMicken reveals. “Frank and I laid down the piano with distortion that low by accident…it stuck.” The outcome is a number with broken descant that quivers, and swarming, reverby guitar solos. “Ain’t It Strange,” a steady rocker, swills and whirls for the “girl” in all our lives during those inevitable pauses in a relationship…then ensues with moments of exaltation. “Die, Die, Die” is a tender, hushed plea from a smoker, killing himself with his beloved tobacco; it, of course, wields a perverse irony.
We All Belong marks a significant moment for the guys of Dr. Dog, for they have gained invaluable experience through trials in the studio and produced a superb addition to their catalog. As their songwriting dynamism reaches new planes, expect it to involve more adventurous experimentation with harmonies and Joanna Newsom-like attention to structure. (Her album Ys has found its way into their stereos and hasn’t been removed for months.) “Since listening to it [Ys] I began to attempt longer, sustained songs with internal rhyming schemes,” McMicken says. For now, they’re on the road, once again.
I always think that you can assess something about people by the company they keep. As previously mentioned, Dr. Dog just got off the train from a fall tour with some good company, The Black Keys, and furthermore, the Dog’s list of touring buddies has included big names like The Raconteurs and indie darlings Cold Ward Kids. And be on the lookout for Domino Records’ soon-to-be-released compilation of “guilty pleasures,” in which they have a cover of Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly.” As you can see, Dr. Dog is doing much more than howlin’ at the moon.