LET ME COUNT THE WAYS: Why Pitchfork’s Review Of The New Dr. Dog Album Has Its Head Up Its Ass


[KEY: IAN COHEN’s Pitchfork review in black, JONATHAN VALANIA’s parsing in red]

Dr. Dog have never released an album called Do You Like Rock Music? and I suppose that recent actions taken by British Sea Power ensure they never will.

Among the dumbest opening lines in the history of rock criticism. If I was your editor, I would give you a ‘Do Over.’

But that question always feels implied in the Dr. Dog experience– just ask anyone who’s not picking up what this Philly fivesome is throwing down and is subsequently accused of not digging “real music, mannnnn.” And maybe their version of “realness” triggers an unfortunate sense of self-loathing, because “Beatles-esque” has for so long been the preeminent last-resort adjective for critics– virtually meaningless, undeniably lazy, avoided at all costs. Fate is the fifth straight time Dr. Dog has made it abundantly clear that they’re not gonna make it any easier on us.

Pardon my French, but what the fuck are you trying to say? The point of writing is communication, Ian, it’s called C-L-A-R-I-T-Y, look into it.

At the very least, Fate is something of a survivor album: the saliva’s long been dry from Kelefa Sanneh’sdr_dog_fate_a_1.jpg sloppy tongue kiss of a profile in The New York Times and the band isn’t exactly selling out arenas, so backlash can only be wielded by the extremely petty. Besides, far shittier bands have come along since that time with a similar sound and bigger sense of entitlement (file under: Kids, Cold War).

After stringing together 191 specious words into something resembling complete sentences, the only salient point you have made is that Cold War Kids suck harder than Dr. Dog? Damn sloppy, son. We just said it in seven words. Remember, brevity is the mother of attention.

More importantly, Dr. Dog have been gradually able to amp up their budget to record the album they “were destined to make,” sounding like they’ve done something other than going straight to Maxell tapes. Ironically for a band whose rep was made on its live shows, this spit polish does Dr. Dog huge favors. On last year’s relatively posh, 24-tracked We All Belong, their ear for sonic simulacra was impressive: the full-bodied and well-placed harmonies suggested a band far less amateur than they were willing to put on, organs trilled modestly, and the tightly-mic’d drums of Juston Stens were a dead ringer for Ringo St… goddamnit, see what I meant in the first paragraph?

OK, best we can figure what you are trying to say is: the sonics of the new album are superior to the one before and that is actually a good thing despite the fact they are a good live band? Huh? And then, it seems, the drums on the last album sounded like the Beatles to you, and this kinda bugs you because….and then you lost us again.

pitchfork.thumbnail.pngAll that said, Fate still manages to be a master class in illusory “good” songwriting.

Again, I have to ask, what the fuck are you trying to say? What does “a master class in illusory ‘good’ songwriting” mean? That makes no sense, dude. Reminds me of a bad translation of French Symboliste poetry, and drinking absinthe don’t make you Rimbaud.

The bulk of it is so fenced into classicist templates– chamber-y pop meets maximum R&B with the occasional smidge of “tasteful” gospel/parlour games (“Hang On”) that, even when merely competent, it can still win over those unimpressed with all that punk and hip-hop riff raff of the past three decades.

What exactly does “the occasional smidge of ‘tasteful’ gospel/parlour games” mean? Is there such a thing as tasteless gospel? You prefer gospel that tastes good? Have you ever even heard gospel music? And no, a Spiritualized album doesn’t count. And ‘parlour games’ — do you even know what a parlour game is?

While Fate was rolling, I thought I’d be able to tell you about how delicious the descending melody ofdr_dog_fate_a_1.jpg “The Old Days” is, or how their stabs at Bonzo Dog Band irreverence manages to come across as genuine. The problem is, once it’s over I can hardly remember how any of it went.

PROTIP: Don’t get so high next time.

Fate is actually stronger for having a viscosity suitable for sliding in one ear and out the other, because the more memorable moments are the worst, due in large part to the insufferable anachronisms of dueling vocalists Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken.

Oh, Lordy. Please get this smoking heap of self-canceling dependent clauses off the Grammar Highway before you get pulled over by the Syntax Police and slapped with a DUI.

During the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” jazzmatazz of “The Ark”, Leaman bemoans, “God, he called for rain/ So I built an ark but no rain came/ I was ashamed,” before he goes off the rails during a similarly AAA-rhymed rant about war (it’s bad!). “The Beach” is about as much fun as you’d expect an environmental plea from these guys would be (and, oh man, that “fixing a hole…” bit). And amidst the slouching piano rag of “From”, Leaman waits for the “choo choo train” in, of all places, the “choo choo rain.”

OK, so you prefer ABAB rhyme schemes (embittered ex-English Major much?), you think war is bad but it’s stupid to say so, environmental apocalypse is too much of a drag to write about, and that grown men in beards and cheap sunglasses shouldn’t use the word ‘Choo Choo Train’ more than once in a song. But none of that is rock criticism, it’s just a bunch of subjective declarations about your personal preferences. That’s called S-O-L-I-P-S-I-S-M’– look it up, son.

pitchfork.thumbnail.pngI guess it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t at least consider the possibility that Dr. Dog are the subject of a double standard because their influences aren’t novel– bands like Cut Copy, No Age, Hercules & Love Affair, and Fleet Foxes are also obviously indebted to a specific period of time, and they seem to do fine around these parts. But like their fellow Philly-retro-author-cause célèbre Marah, Dr. Dog often view their predecessors like museum pieces instead of inspiration, only these guys are probably too shook to consider some sort of disastrous about-face like Float Away With the Friday Night Gods.

Yes, bands often sound like other bands. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rock music is a continuum, and like folk music it’s all about aping what has come before. The great ones get it wrong in some crucial way and accidentally invent something new. And yes, Marah is also from Philadelphia, but so is the Fresh Prince, who seems about as relevant to Dr. Dog as Marah. Which is to say not at all.

Plus, the overly serious takes on religion and politics, combined with Leaman and McMicken’s tendencydr_dog_fate_a_1.jpg to project their voices past “Hey Jude” huzzahs into soul papa smarm (“Army of Ancients”, amongst others) and “I gave my love a cherry” sobriety, make you wonder exactly how much credence to put into the idea that “they’re just having fun.”

Earnestness and fun are not mutually exclusive. Just sayin’. Once again, not sure what the fuck you mean by “‘I gave my love a cherry’ sobriety” — did you mean ‘sincerity’ instead of ‘sobriety’? That would’ve actually made sense.

Maybe, this is the kind of thing that will ultimately sound better half-heard at an Indian summer BBQ or even live, but until Dr. Dog realizes what would’ve resulted if their idols just reheated the past as unambitiously as they do, forget all those Beatles and Beach Boys namedrops and stick with “average white band.” No caps. Ian Cohen, July 25, 2008

If you look into your heart of hearts you will admit that you came up with that ‘average white band’ jab first and then wrote a whole review to justify using it. And if you continue to look long and hard in that heart of hearts, you will admit that it is a cheap and lowly act to dismiss the years of blood, sweat and tears a band like Dr. Dog has expended — in the humble pursuit of showing you something beautiful — with such a mediocre rock crit pun. Shame on you, Sir.

RELATED: Dr. Dog’s Fate is currently playing on Phawker Radio


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