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Dr. Dog: Fate: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review

(Park the Van)


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Dr. Dog: Fate
(Park the Van)

Reviewed by Sam Sweet 

Dr. Dog’s heart is in its harmonies. There is no cunning in five musicians singing in unison. There is nothing modish about it. It doesn’t reek of imitation or appropriation, because it goes beyond all of that, back to doo-wop and beyond. Harmony singing predates doo-wop, and even pop music itself. For as long as people have congregated, they have sung together. A band needs a guilelessness to tap into a tradition that old, which is why so few contemporary pop groups harmonize. Unlike wah-wah guitar, walking bass or pedal steel, harmonies don’t signify allegiance to a certain era or pop music style. The sound of five people singing together is an old sound that signifies old ideals: trust, equanimity, goodwill. It comes easy to a band reared in the City of Brotherly Love.

Fate is more obtuse and wily than the band’s previous effort, We All Belong. It’s less prone to big hooks and comfy grooves than it is left turns and trap doors. The groaning, gutsy cadences of “The Beach” and the theatrical swaying of “Army of Ancients” display the band’s under-acknowledged affinity for iconoclasts like David Bowie and Tom Waits. The band itself sounds more accomplished than ever before. Dr. Dog is never more comfortable than they are on the easy chair amble of “From,” but their athleticism has sharpened to the point where they can slip easily into the checkered rhythms of “The Rabbit, The Bat, and the Reindeer.”

With every component moving in congregation with the others, Fate once again proves that Dr. Dog is an exceptional crew of musicians. With the wiry, tuneful solo in “From” Frank McElroy matches George Harrison for heart and concision. Pianist Zach Miller is as comfortable using his instrument as a rhythmic hook in “The Old Days” as he is filling coloring the spaces in “100 Years.” Where like-minded groups have been bogged down by overdone drumming, Juston Stens keeps Dr. Dog unpretentious and light on its feet on “The Ark” and “Hang On.” At the core is the duel leadership of Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman, whose complementary vocal and songwriting styles strike a balance between saltlick and sugarcane.

Fate feels more like a transition album than a peak performance, but the double-time surge of “The Old Days” leaves no doubt that the band can propel itself to further spaces. Even when the recipe is slightly off, Dr. Dog never loses the listener. This is the art of the harmony group, a tradition that bypasses the the Beach Boys and the Band and links Dr. Dog with the Re-Vels, the Capris, Lee Andrews & the Hearts and all the other quartets and quintets that emerged from Philadelphia. There is an instinct trust you feel when you hear doo-wop songs like Lee Andrews’ “Teardrops” or the Capris’ “There’s A Moon Out Tonight.” Those harmonies are the pure product of sincerity and ingenuity. Dr. Dog embodies that equation.


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