By Michael Lello
There’s a fine line between honoring your influences and becoming a retro regurgitation of past genres. Dr. Dog, which has never shied away from its love of 1960s music, walks this line with the greatest of ease like a circus tightrope walker. And the Philadelphia band might have done its best balancing act yet with “B-Room,” its seventh studio album out Oct. 1.
Chief among the reasons for the band’s continued – and improving – brilliance is the remarkably symbiotic and complementary relationship between co-frontmen Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken. For every no-nonsense tale told through Leaman’s world-weary rasp, there’s a dreamy, almost childlike tune by McMicken.
The group opens “B-Room” – named after a part of the new studio they built – with “Broken Heart,” an irresistible dance rock track with a subdivided beat. “Freedom from love, freedom from the heartache,” the band sings, making the point that if you don’t try, you can’t lose. “Cuckoo,” meanwhile, springs forth from a dirty Grateful Dead “Easy Wind” guitar riff and maintains a heavy psychedelic blues vibe throughout. “Distant Light” is a hazy campfire singalong, wild and wooly, and it draws you in with an intro of handclaps and Leaman’s “yeahs!”
It takes four songs for McMicken to chime in with a tune of his own, “Long Way Down,” which is slightly out-there and includes some horn accents. He’s at it again with “Love,” one of “B-Room’s” finest moments. It’s all snaky funk and wah-wah guitar at first, played in a minor key, before a pre-chorus and chorus build into a singsong-y DayGlo celebration. “Love, can it last/ All my life/ As it passes?” McMicken sings.
“Minding The Usher,” another McMicken selection, builds slowly from dark organ and leads to a nice, simple chorus, while “Nellie” is one of Leaman’s several simply brilliant and brilliantly simple acoustic ditties that pack more power than the sum of their parts, complete with a jubilant chorus.
The most blatantly Americana song on the record is “Phenomenon,” complete with banjo and fiddle, but the chorus slays and is not genre-driven by any means. “Rock and Roll,” Leaman’s nearly stream-of-consciousness recounting of his early listening experiences, is a complete contrast, but no less upbeat.
“Too Weak To Ramble” is a stop-in-your-tracks moment and the top achievement of Leaman’s songwriting career thus far. Accompanied only by his and McMicken’s acoustic guitars, Leaman is yearning and vulnerable, “too low to get up, too weak to try, too drunk to stagger, too gone to lie.”
Dr. Dog closes “B-Room” with the lush soft rock of “The Truth,” aided and abetted by what sounds like a toy piano as well as resonant tom-toms, as well as “Twilight,” a postscript lullaby with harp (think the “White Album’s” “Good Night”). “The truth don’t stop/ Thunder and lightning/ The devil’s done/ I paid my dues/ But he just won’t quit/ He don’t like to lose,” McMicken sings in the “Truth,” before leading the band into a chorus of “Let the rain fall.”
To say Dr. Dog is one of the best bands currently recording and touring is more a statement of personal preference than fact, but the band deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Wilco and My Morning Jacket – and not as acolytes, as peers. With “B-Room,” they have created a cycle of songs that work with and against each other, pushing and pulling, experimenting but never venturing too far afield. It’s one of their finest records.