Dog Problems offers up a wealth of musical ideas, intricate arrangements, hooks galore and sharp lyrics.
Being in a band is like being in a relationship with multiple people at the same time, all with varying degrees of neediness, moodiness and all the myriad interpersonal issues that go along with all manner of love affairs. Throw in the label, promo people and tour managers and you’ve got a very tenuous situation about to become that much worse.
Not all bands end up imploding in this manner, of course, but that vast majority do. When the duo of Nate Ruess (vocals) and Sam Means (multi-instrumentalist) got together in the early 2000s in Arizona under the Format moniker, it was due to a mutual interest in ‘60s-inspired pop and winsome indie rock. They quickly assembled a 5-song EP from which a local hit began to gain traction. “The First Single,” like the band’s name, seemed something of an industry-specific joke: the band itself following a specific songwriting format to create an ear worm that would appropriately become their first big single. This song then caught the attention of the folks at Elektra who quickly signed the pair and, in 2003, released Interventions and Lullabies.
Despite the initial hype, the album would become lost in the shuffle as Elektra – whom the band, while touring behind the album, referred to as “Neglektra” – became absorbed by Atlantic who summarily dropped the band when neither could see eye-to-eye creatively. They continued to tour and write, growing their fanbase along the way while sharing the stage with bands like Jimmy Eat World, Taking Back Sunday and Anathallo, among others. The songs on Interventions and Lullabies were very much in keeping with these bands’ respective sounds, falling, thanks to Ruess’ distinctive vocals, on the more emotionally-charged end of the indie rock spectrum.
By 2006, the Format had been let go, had other labels come calling and were in the process of wrapping up the album that would become Dog Problems. Not surprisingly, the album featured a number of songs dealing with the pair’s experiences over the preceding years (“The Compromise,” in particular, is a nasty little swipe at their former corporate overlords), as well as a healthy dose of post-breakup laments (the title track, “Matches” and just about everything else on the album). Self-released through their Vanity Label imprint (though distributed by Sony/BMG), the album is pure pop perfection, one that should have made their career or, at the very least, helped assure them some sort of iconic cult record status.
A massive evolutionary step from their debut, Dog Problems offers up a wealth of musical ideas, intricate arrangements, hooks galore and sharp lyrics. Indeed, listened to back-to-back, the only identifying characteristic is Ruess’ voice. Far more theatrical than its predecessor, the album also manages that rare feat of being both a lyrically and thematically coherent album and one in which there exists nary a bum track. Opening with a carnivalesque keyboard part that builds throughout the whole of opening track “Matches,” Ruess, Means, et. al. cleverly invite listeners into their technicolor sonic palette (not a guitar in sight at the outset), exploding into woozy, psychedelic color in just over two minutes, setting the tone for what is to follow.
“I’m Actual” relies on a wordless backing choir of Ruess’ multi-tracked voice a la Freddie Mercury atop which he sings/asks, “So can we take the next hour and talk about me? / …talk about me, yeah, we’ll only talk about me.” Far from being narcissistic, it instead points to a lyrical openness the permeates the album, Ruess’ life on full display for all to hear as he calls out ex-lovers, questions himself and generally bemoans his bad luck in terms of love. But rather than being navel-gazing or insufferable, Dog Problems buries its pessimism and self-sorry under layers and layers of incessant melodies, massive hooks and Ruess’ extremely versatile vocals (he quick literally goes from a whisper to a larynx-shredding scream over the course of the album’s runtime). “Time Bomb,” “She Doesn’t Get It,” “Oceans,” and “Inches and Falling (I Love, Love)” all offer McCartney-esque melodies that, under different circumstances, would’ve become massive hits.
“If Work Permits” may well be the best closing song/fuck-you ever recorded, building and building to an unhinged scream and balls-to-the-wall outro section that can’t help but feel euphorically cathartic. It should have led to still greater things, but it simply was not to be, the album failing to register beyond a fiercely devoted following and gradually disappearing altogether. No doubt, the sting of perceived failure hit hardest amongst those with the biggest career aspirations. But that’s always the double-edged sword faced by many musicians: maintain artistic integrity or embrace commercial reward. When one cancels out the other, different directions are taken, true colors often shine through.
If you visit the band’s website, there remains a single post simply titled “Important” from 2008 that states in no uncertain terms that there will not be another Format album; Dog Problems would be the last we’d hear from this incredibly promising band. Reputedly an amicable – albeit difficult – decision, Ruess and Means effectively ended the band after just five years together. Not coincidentally, Ruess teamed up with Steel Train’s Jack Antonoff and Anathallo’s Andrew Dost that same year to establish the group Fun. who, within four years, would become ubiquitous following the release of their Some Nights LP, the songs sounding like overproduced, lesser versions of the ideas conveyed on Dog Problems. Means would surface several years later with an album of his own, his well-crafted songs lacking the overblown theatricality of Ruess, yet still retaining the melodic insistence of his former band.
These respective divergent paths can’t help but feel like a latter-day Lennon and McCartney: together they created great things; apart they come off as mere shadows of their collaborative selves. So instead of a grand follow up to what was in and of itself an astonishing sophomore release, we were left with two separate factions carrying on their respective contributions to a greater whole. Artistic integrity and commercial aims can balance each other out. Separately, they’re doomed to fail.