Being straightforward hasn’t exactly been Dodos‘ strong suit lately. Not only did the California duo claim their fourth effort was going to be “unlistenable”, reveal Neko Case was going to be on the record, and then release two tracks without her on them – but the name of the LP itself, No Color, demanded intrigue. After finally hearing the album, though, these inquiries were soundly resolved. Bottom line? No Color may be lacking a few things – notably, a vibraphonist and a suave producer – but color is certainly not one of them, as this album is a great triumph in rich sound, controlled chaos and indelible melodies.
On this fourth outing, we find the Dodos simply a duo again – and Meric Long’s intricate strumming and serenading vocals swirling together with Logan Kroeber’s frenetic drumming are all back in top form. Working once more with Visiter producer John Askew, No Color could easily have been a return home of sorts, an homage to the raw chaos of “Red and Purple” and “Fools” that won us over just three years ago. Instead, it’s a record of progress. The polish of Time to Die has yet to completely wear off, but its remnants pair nicely with the fiery reawakened sense of urgency that characterize No Color‘s nine tracks and 40 minutes.
The album hits the ground running, with a five track onslaught of relentless energy. Starter track “Black Night” begins with a galloping drum rhythm that quickly swells into a lush combination of rapid guitar strumming and finger-picked chords. The addition of a clean, crisp vocal track completes the mix, and as Long sings “Control yourself/I don’t want it to, I don’t need it to contain itself,” we see a newfound self-awareness, acknowledging boundaries and their inherent dilemmas. This tension between control and freedom results in an interesting balance that remains constant throughout, and Long and Kroeber succeed in striking the perfect levels of enthusiasm and spontaneity without being reckless.
This trend continues into “Going Under”, which integrates sudden tempo and rhythm changes, characteristic of the Dodos, that turn at ease when the chorus comes around. Neko Case’s background vocals make their first appearance here, subtle and unassuming, seamlessly accompanying Long’s near-whisper. Although present on five of the nine tracks, Case is nowhere near a focus for No Color, as most of her accompaniments can easily go unnoticed. Although a let-down for Case fans and those hoping for this album to be a collaboration, the nonchalance of her presence reaffirms that No Color is, first and foremost, a Dodos album. The addition of a third person on Time to Die undercut the ferocity of the duo, and Long and Kroeber smartly avoided that happening again. That being said, her role in “Don’t Try and Hide It” fills a gap and ends up saving an otherwise uneventful track, and, on the whole, is a nice touch.
A definite No Color highlight, “Sleep” comes midway through the album, and is anything but a lullaby with its clattering percussion, keys, and throbbing strings. Soothing ‘ahhhs’ are interrupted by the resurgence of Long’s contemplation and syncopated beats, nearly chanting, “I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot dream.” “Sleep” functions as a microcosm of the album: combinations of seemingly disparate elements to a cohesive whole, attesting to Dodos’ impressive abilities as musicians.
Following the five track full-on assault of aggressive percussion and frantic guitar playing, tracks such as “Hunting Season” and “Companions” offer a chance to catch your breath. The break in tempo and more mellow instrumentation is compensated for by Long’s vocal performance, notably the rhythmic phrasing through the verses and a delicate quiver in his voice in the chorus of “Hunting Season”. The guitar work on “Companions” is as compelling as it is intricate, and a perfect companion for the reverb-heavy vocal accompaniment – and saves these two tracks from being filler material. Although the slower songs fail to demand attention, in their subtlety lies their success and necessity; an entire album like the first half would be utterly exhausting.
No Colors showcases a band who knows exactly who they are and feels completely comfortable in their sound, constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible for a two-piece. “Don’t Stop” concludes the album, its gradual acceleration acting as a cumulation of everything Long and Kroeber have put together throughout the album. Layered vocal harmonies atop tribal percussion, sweet quick acoustic guitar melodies, gritty electric guitar appearances – it is all there and it’s never sounded better, resulting in the perfect, triumphant close to a record that is anything but monochromatic.