Music » Features

Philly's Finest

How Dr. Dog ran to the front of the psych-rock pack



In 2004, the idealistic young quintet of Philadelphians known as Dr. Dog found themselves shoved into the national spotlight, thanks in part to a sparkling profile in The New York Times—essentially a declaration that these were the fresh-faced young messiahs of rock 'n' roll. The Times praised the band's first official release, Easy Beat, for its lo-fi charm and ingenuity, as well as its distinct nods to baroque pop's founding fathers. According to guitarist and founding member Scott McMicken, however, their newfound success wasn't immediately tangible.

"We'd still play in clubs to crowds of only 10 or 15 people," says McMicken. "The attention wasn't really sudden, so we were able to ride a steady, organic sense of ambition and learn the craft of recording and engineering as we went."

That wave of ambition carried Dr. Dog into their next release, 2007's We All Belong. While We All Belong retained the sort of '60s-style soaring pop ballads that made Easy Beat so striking, it was clear that Dr. Dog were delving into a more sophisticated style of recording. The album was rich with warm string arrangements and well-crafted three- and four-part harmonies that proved this was more than a college rock band with a four-track recorder.

In July, Dr. Dog released their fifth full-length album, the 11-song opus Fate. While it has been well-received, some critics believe the band's gradual transition into a more finely tuned recording process has diminished one of their strongest attributes: innovation. When making Easy Beat and the two full-lengths that preceded it, the band was limited by a lack of space and sophisticated equipment, and those limitations led to sundry, pieced-together percussion parts that frequently sounded as though they were sampled. With the group's move to Pro Tools, however, this kind of tinkering was no longer a necessity.

But what Fate lacks in homemade quirkiness it makes up for with cohesion and intricate arrangement. Fluttering woodwinds and strings co-written with longtime friend and unofficial "sixth member" Brendan Cooney give many of Fate's tracks a distinct Motown vibe. The dirty, rhythmic riffs of McMicken and fellow guitarist Frank McElroy are thick with shades of George Harrison and Marc Bolan.

McMicken shares songwriting duties with bass player and childhood friend Toby Leaman—Fate is divided evenly between each writer's material. This unique approach to album construction, coupled with their budding ability to translate energetic live performances to tape, makes for one of Dr. Dog's most mature and consistent efforts to date. While McMicken admits he has a difficult time collaborating early in the writing process, he and his bandmates have an exceptional knack for fleshing out songs together.

"We often take a mechanical approach," notes McMicken. "We pick apart patterns to see what best suits the song."

The result is an album that is split right down the middle. Leaman's songs are peppered with climactic choruses and satisfyingly visceral oh-yeahs. McMicken's, on the other hand, are substantially more balanced by subtle, doo-wop style callbacks, deconstructed refrains and loping bass lines. Giving Fate solidity more than anything else is its subject matter. While the band didn't set forth with the intention of making a themed album, McMicken claims they fell upon roughly a dozen tunes centered around a nebulous sense of spirituality and "looking to things larger than [them]selves" purely by chance.

Fate closes with "My Friend," Dr. Dog's answer to "A Day in the Life." A perfect study in the band's internal dichotomy, it's composed of two distinct segments that build dramatically into a wall of woodwind, stacked, wailing riffs and strings before being abruptly snuffed out by the rhythmic chugging of a freight train.

Due mostly to their unmistakable influences, Dr. Dog have found themselves in a pack that may or may not be a good one to run with. Fans and critics alike often group them in with the burgeoning sea of neo-psychedelia, but while contemporary revival acts like The Willowz and The Black Angels channel the jagged guitars and wild, howling vocals of the '60s, Dr. Dog's music leans more toward the craftsmanship and thoughtful execution of The Beatles, Emitt Rhodes and Badfinger. Behind Dr. Dog's early lo-fi sound and behind the Motown, British Invasion and psychedelic facades lies a skill that is increasingly lost with the new wave of disjointed, ethereal electro-psych: good, solid songwriting. That's what Dr. Dog started with, and that's why they'll continue to prosper.

Add a comment