The chorus of “Stranger,” the opening song on Dr. Dog’s Shame, Shame, seems to summarize what the band’s detractors and doubters usually criticize the group for as well as why they attempted to mix the formula up a bit here: “I do believe that there’s no more tricks up my sleeve/ The good old days have passed,” vocalist/bassist Toby Leaman sings. It’d be easy to frame the “good old days” that he’s referring to as the ’60s and ’70s, a time when Dr. Dog would have fit in much better, when their contemporaries wouldn’t have been ADD noise-makers and synthed-out ironists. But a band can only release so many albums that so blatantly long for the heyday of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. So Dr. Dog decided to leave Park The Van Records and find a new home with Anti-, in the process ditching their home-base Philadelphia studio to begin work with a veteran outside producer (Rob Schnapf, who in the past lent a hand to Elliott Smith and recorded Beck’s “Loser”). Those anticipating – or fearing – a complete makeover in the result, though, will have to wait longer.
It’s evident early in “Stranger” that the men in Dr. Dog have paid attention to the sonic gaps that were left unfilled on previous albums; flashier tones, brief keyboard waves and subtle production tricks are aplenty. The songwriting, which in the past could safely be called solid or reliable, hasn’t necessarily improved, but the production face-lift makes it sound a bit more relevant. They sound like a modern band and not the time-warped worshipers of the long-gone Festival Express era. “Shadow People,” one of the album’s many upbeat tracks draped in darker than usual lyrics, is a prime candidate for the song that breaks Dr. Dog into the open, though “My Old Ways,” “Worst Trip,” “Old Days” and “My Friend” have failed in the past and their sound is still a little too out there (i.e. not out there enough) to achieve more respect and recognition in the indie-rock universe. All of Dr. Dog’s trademarks – climactic, dueling guitar lines, golden-oldie “ooh” and “ahh” backing harmonies and a lock-step rhythm section, to name a few – made the trip from Fate to Shame, Shame and the surprises are kept to a minimum. Influences are still worn directly on the band’s flannel sleeves: the lazy “Station” and “Mirror, Mirror” sound like they were written in front of the massive altar to the Band that undoubtedly sits in their Philadelphia residence; the punchier bass tone and more exploratory, Hudson-esque keyboards shine a light on the sound even more prominently. But for a long-defunct act that gets mentioned and paid homage to at a criminally low rate, I’ll welcome Band idolizing with open arms. The Beatles are always hung over our heads as well (most evident in “Someday,” with its “I should have known better” chorus followed up by a minor-key chord shift and strawberry flute synth line).
A few mid-tempo, mid-album songs such as “Unbearable Why” and “Where’d All The Time Go?” drift through one ear and out the other, ending in overblown and uncharacteristic walls of sound, but “Later” picks up the pace in a huge way as Shame, Shame’s midway point. The song, Leaman’s ode to the ancient act of waiting around with a cigarette, combines a quick and simple sing-along chorus with an unusual riff and chord progression that soak up the sounds of like-minded Philly-area acts Man Man and And the Moneynotes. The overall musical trajectory here takes brief steps into trip-hop, folk and blues, but they all end up in the same place. It’s sort of a shame that it’s taken Dr. Dog six albums and nine years to move through two or three slightly different styles, but they don’t seem to mind. The promise by the band that Shame, Shame would be more modern and “punk-rock” was basically a tease, and the album shows that if they’re eventually going to show some balls and switch it up, they’re in no rush to do so. But for now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a band that simply enjoys being enjoyable and not much more – we could use a few more like them.