Like a fine wine, Dr. Dog gets better with age. Since the band made a strong first impression with their live shows, each new album gets closer to that perfect debut that should have gotten them noticed in the first place. For their latest attempt, Be the Void, the Philadelphia quintet added a new drummer and “electronics-percussionist-guitarist” Dimitri Manos (who, incidentally, worked with the band on 2005’s Easy Beat), and the results show. It’s their tightest and simultaneously most experimental release, incorporating Afrobeat elements and intensifying the psychedelia that used to meander somewhat aimlessly through the band’s earlier material. Despite these efforts, Be the Void still suffers from lyrical paucity and by-the-book throwbacks. Dr. Dog may keep getting better, but until the band fixes these continual sticking points, they’ll forever be stuck in “That Old Black Hole”.
Vocalist/guitarist Scott McMicken sums up Dr. Dog’s sound on that first single when he sings, “I don’t rock the boat, but it’s always unsteady.” They haven’t done anything that hasn’t been done before, but the new members add welcome variety to Dr. Dog’s retro-mania. Drummer Eric Slick kicks off opener “Lonesome” with a thumping beat, anchoring Be the Void as much as he moves it forward, like a shark. Slick holds back on “Get Away” to let bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman whine about being “old and in shambles,” breaking into a gallop only when he sings, “the bottle is broken, the ghost has escaped.” Together with Manos’ percussion and Leaman’s bass on “Heavy Light”, Slick maintains polyrhythms similar to Afropop purveyors Givers and Vampire Weekend (McMicken’s voice even sounds a lot like Ezra Koenig’s).
The band’s aforementioned love of music from the 1960’s still comes across as strongly, if not more than ever, despite their newer sonic elements. No band can elude its obligatory “Beatles-esque” moment and ensuing critical finger-pointing forever, but “the members of Dr. Dog cheerfully acknowledge the debt they owe to classic rock,” according to an interview with The New York Times’ Kelefa Sanneh. Sure enough, Leaman howls like Macca on “Vampire” (and twangs like Dylan on “Big Girl”), and the sitar student becomes the master on “Turning the Century”. “Warrior Man” epitomizes ‘70s glam rock with its languid enunciations, organ blips, and meta-narrative about incongruous things like “ancient warrior clans,” being a “computer man,” and “hubcaps and soda cans.”
This disparity between lyrics unfortunately does hinder the album. On “Do the Trick”, McMicken sings, “I’ve burnt the candle on every side, I’ve long since run out of wick/Will you be my flame tonight? Will you do the trick?” prefaced with “You could say I’m a lunatic” and followed by “Man, this fog is so thick.” It is impressive that McMicken rhymed with the same sound through the entire song, but in a “Look, Ma! I memorized the thesaurus!” sort of way. Upon closer listen, however, this sort of trickery emphasizes a lack of emotional depth and vulnerability. If he tackled something deeper instead of empty questions, songs like “How Long Must I Wait” would actually convey the sadness in those minor chords.
As a fellow CoS writer noted, “it’s still very Dr. Dog, and it should be damn fun live.” For all the band’s efforts to switch things up, tighten up, and grow up, Be the Void sounds like another Dr. Dog album, and they remain, above all else, a great live act. At this point in their five-album, decade-long career, it’s unlikely that McMicken will psychoanalyze himself beyond his favorite random anachronisms. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, after all.
Essential Tracks: “That Old Black Hole”, “How Long Must I Wait”, and “Lonesome”