Accompanying Dr. Dog’s surprise album release earlier this week was a statement that begins, “Have you ever wondered, ‘Gee, I wonder when we’ll hear some new Dr. Dog tunes?’ No, I don’t think you have. In fact, no one has. We put out more music than the Wolfman and Frankenstein combined.” While this is, indeed, a true statement from one of the most prolific bands of the past 15 years, I, personally, can never get enough of the Dog. I am what one might call a “superfan.” The Philadelphia folk rock troupe has released nine studio albums since their debut in 2002, plus three EPs, three compilations, a Christmas EP in 2013, a live album in 2015, and a speckling of bonus tracks tagged onto deluxe album editions throughout. They graciously satiate their fans, and yet, they always leave us wanting more.
About a year ago, an inside source told me that Dr. Dog had recorded an album that had never seen the light of day. Shortly after learning this, the band released Psychedelic Swamp, a collection of songs written in 2001 that were revisited and reimagined at this later point in their career. While I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by their withholding the mystery album, learning this fact reminded me of one of the reasons why I can confidently call Dr. Dog my favorite band: they play by their own rules. You can hear it in their music — they don’t churn out albums like a record industry machine, just to turn a buck (as if the industry even works that way anymore!). They’re an ideas band, producing concept albums that contain a whole world in a dozen songs. When you step back and look at this collection of sonic worlds, you will see a whole Dr. Dog universe, one that operates on a nonlinear timeline, and we, as fans, get to time travel with them as they open up secret doors to this universe.
“Folk rock” is the easiest label to apply to a band that generally tours the Americana festival circuit, but they always have been, and always will be, so much more. They were pioneers of the lo-fi bedroom indie sound of the early 2000s with Toothbrush and Easy Beat. As they gained success and critical acclaim, the sound evolved slightly, more polished and more poppy, with sing-alongable anthems on We All Belong and Fate, easily their most conceptual and cohesive album which secured the common comparison to The Beatles. The following three albums, Shame, Be The Void, and B-Room, seemed to appear in quick succession, with the band’s sound growing bigger in tandem with bigger crowds. It was sometime in this period, from 2010-2013, that Dr. Dog became known as a jammy, Americana band, with an enormous catalog of music to fill sold-out arena shows. So when Psychedelic Swamp was released earlier this year, following a performance art series in Philly called “The Swamp Is On,” it reminded us that Dr. Dog had, by no means, plateaued. The Swamp is a world we hadn’t seen yet: murky, electric, and treacherous, perhaps, and yet, these are the songs that the whole Dog universe was founded upon.
Abandoned Mansion is the antidote to the abstract constellation created on Psychedelic Swamp. The songs feel incredibly direct and personal, telling stories of relatable human experiences rather than the poetic fables I had previously extracted from their lyrics. As always, Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman trade off songs, each with their own distinct songwriting style, Leaman blazing the gruff, raw end of the emotional spectrum, and McMicken, the dominant voice on this record, offering softer, contemplative musings. The opening track, “Casual Freefall,” fades in on McMicken singing “I’m what I am/Instead of whatever I’m not.” It creates an interesting effect, almost as if to suggest that the album is a continuation of a previous thought, while the opening line also establishes McMicken’s artistic identity, at least on this album. It’s a relaxed introductory track, with minimal percussive backbone, floating out after three minutes as gently as it floated in. Leaman takes the lead on the next track, his voice firmer than McMicken’s but still relatively tender for him, sitting back on the beat, the musical body filling out with their characteristic vocal harmonies and arpeggiated piano tones throughout.
Someone once told me a personal theory that the best song on every album is track #3. I resisted this theory by naming a specific counterexample (“True Affection,” on Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear). While I stand by the impossibility of applying this theory to every album, “Jim Song” is certainly the standout track on Abandoned Mansion for me. I have combed through Dr. Dog’s entire discography, and have yet to find another instance of McMicken singing so candidly about love or, specifically, heartbreak. The song addresses several phases of the grief that accompany lost love, sentiments that are quite familiar to anyone who has loved (“There’s a weight on my back and a thorn in my side/There’s a stone in my chest where my heart should reside”), but the hook of the song addresses a less-discussed symptom of heartbreak, that of wounded pride. On paper, it sounds selfish, implying that the lost lover in question matters less as an individual than they do as a manifestation of this personal pride. But it’s true — speaking from experience, love is a selfish force, and ultimately, we seek it out to make ourselves feel better about our meager collective existence. Pride is what wakes us up in the morning, it’s what gets us through the day, it motivates us to create, to feel. McMicken certainly understands this concept, and isn’t afraid to say it: “I don’t really need her like I need my pride.”
Leaman bounces us back with another playful number, halfway between spoken word and crooning, a foil to “Jim Song” aptly titled “Survive,” the chorus ebulliently chiming “Remember! Take care of your heart!” But McMicken hasn’t quite finished the saga of this epic romance, replacing harmonica with a string quartet in another ballad, “I Saw Her For The First Time,” this time illustrating the relationship’s origin, rather than demise. “Peace of Mind” takes us out of any specific narrative, into the eternal struggle to find balance, reminiscent of Lennon in his politically-bent Plastic Ono Band phase. The next few songs sound like true vintage Dr. Dog: the familiar laid-back rambling on Leaman’s “Could’ve Happened to Me” and McMicken’s simultaneously cryptic and poignant use of metaphor on “Both Sides of the Line” and “I Know.”
We close out Abandoned Mansion with the eponymous track, a sprawling, five minute long farewell to the album. Though the phrase seems to refer to a specific person in the song, there’s no doubt that it succinctly sums up the album as a whole: a forgotten space, full of precious artifacts and antiquities, only made more valuable by the passage of time. The two elapsed years since recording seem to have provided some reflectiveness for the band, too, who recognize the wholesomeness of the album in their statement as follows: “Thematically, this is Dr. Dog meat and potatoes. Our proverbial wheelhouse. Songs of the oldest questions. Songs as tools to finding oneself. And most importantly, songs of acceptance. Acceptance of yourself and acceptance of the others around you.” Abandoned Mansion captures the essence of a band who consistently gives back to their community — emotionally, artistically, and not for the first time, charitably: all proceeds of Abandoned Mansion go to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, seeking justice for society’s most vulnerable citizens for over 40 years. Find it on Bandcamp for just $10; treat yourself, or gift it to a friend, and enjoy this musical medicine as you close out your 2016.
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