Essential New Music: Dr. Dog’s “Psychedelic Swamp”

DrDog

It’s easy to forget that Dr. Dog used to be a seriously weird band. Most of its recent existence has been spent evolving into rock ‘n’ roll road warriors of the My Morning Jacket variety: touring relentlessly, playing to bigger and bigger audiences, and releasing infectious record after infectious record. The focus on crowd-pleasing pop began in earnest with its fourth proper LP, 2008’s Fate, and since then, there’s been relatively little looking back.

But if you turn to its beginnings in the tripped-out basements of West Philly circa 1999, you’ll find a very different Dr. Dog. One that preferred beat-up banjos and rickety acoustics to cranked Orange amps; one that didn’t need drums in the front of the mix (or in the mix at all, even); one that harnessed the sound of warbling, hissing tapes and crushing distortion to lend its music a singular vibe. It was a band that took aesthetic cues from the post-Barlow eight-tracking ’90s and applied them fearlessly to the dense, psychedelic rock its members were reared on.

2002 collection Toothbrush is typically the Dr. Dog album embraced by people who don’t like Dr. Dog—likely because it predates the band’s flirtation with ideas of pop and accessibility, and was purely music for music’s sake. Even more coveted in those circles is the 2001 Psychedelic Swamp EP, a long out-of-print cassette filled with chopped-up audio collages and foggy textures where song ideas only occasionally and fleetingly surfaced.

Last fall, the band revisited that early record in a stage show collaboration with Philly troupe Pig Iron Theatre. In it, the music was “translated” from the (marginally listenable) bleep-bloop fuzz of the original into song-songs. As a result, the new/old Psychedelic Swamp LP of today fuses the best of both worlds.

Dr. Dog the refined pop tunesmiths exhume the snappy “Dead Record Player” and the burning soul of “Bring My Baby Back” from the fray, making for two of the band’s best-ever recordings. But Dr. Dog the hallucinogenic soundscapers brings its older/wiser self deep down the rabbit hole on textural guitar expanse “Holes In My Back,” sounding more adventurous than the band has in years.

—John Vettese