One hot night a few Augusts ago, I stopped by my friend Steve’s place. He had just moved into a new apartment in East Nashville and wanted me to see it. It was the upstairs unit of a big house on a beautiful tree-lined street in downtown’s shadow. He was still getting things settled, but he had the important things unpacked: his bed, some stray food, and his record player.
Steve’s a sound guy, and a music lover; he’s one of those people who always has music playing in the background. If you visit him at work, he’s been listening to something. If you see him at home, the turntable’s spinning. I’m the same way, but 1) I know what I’m listening to and 2) I don’t own a record player. That’s one reason I always loved going to Steve’s place, wherever it was: I usually heard something new, and it always sounded different (read: like vinyl).
This particular night a few Augusts ago, we talked while something spun in the background. It immediately reeled me in: I didn’t recognize the songs, but I recognized the sound. The record’s production was vintage–jangly, organic, and golden like so many folk-rock albums of the 60’s and 70’s. A little George Harrison All Things Must Pass, a little early Stevie, and a lot of something else. Tons of energy. Joyous background vocals. Multi-section songwriting, each part naturally easing into something new. A million different things–barroom keys, manic tambourines, harmonies and melodies swirling around each other–for the ear to latch onto. It sounded like a gorgeous old house filled with secret rooms and trapdoors. I’d never heard it before, but felt like I had.
“Steve, what are we listening to?”
“Dr. Dog. You don’t know Dr. Dog?”
That particular introductory song was “Hang On.” A few Augusts later, not only do I know Dr. Dog, I know all their albums, and I’ve seen them live (favorite concert of 2011 so far). I’m a big fan. Steve also introduced me to Delta Spirit, and the Thrills, and Josh Ritter, and who knows who else. Steve’s got a great track record.
Song of the Week: Dr. Dog, “My Friend“
Dr. Dog has two main singers and songwriters–bassist Toby Leaman and lead guitarist Scott McMicken. Their albums are roughly split down the middle in terms of who sings which song and (I assume) who wrote that song. Whenever a band has two main songwriters, fans often pick their favorite. This is a descendant of a Beatles phenomenon, where fans self-identify as a “John Guy” or a “Paul Guy” or, semi-weirdly, a “George Guy.” It’s continued since. Some Uncle Tupelo fans preferred either Jay Farrar’s songs or Jeff Tweedy’s, ultimately picking sides when the band broke up and begat Son Volt and Wilco. Mark Arm and Stone Gossard from Green River begat Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone (eventually Pearl Jam); the former stayed true to a punk-purist songwriting style, the latter veered off into the pop world, and fans followed according to their own aesthetics. The list goes on.
Dr. Dog is lucky enough to have two gifted songwriters and lead vocalists that 1) share a vision for the band but 2) have their own perspective. I love “My Friend” because it’s one of the only times we get two-songs-in-one from them: each guy gets a part.
The first half belongs to Leamon. It’s an up-tempo rock groove, rhythm-driven, bouncy, syncopated, seemingly at ease. Lyrically, the song’s both narrative and abstract. He outlines a friendship facing some issues, but we get more rumination than detail. A worried lyric belies the light-hearted music. This is a dichotomy Dr. Dog does very well, and very often: happy music with heavier lyrics. After a few repeated sections, they settle into a coda that fades into a lone piano track and some ambient train noise (2:57). This begins McMicken’s section, which gives us more insight into this “friendship.” His half of the song is more melodic and mid-tempo. But the background vocals at the end of each phrase (“don’t give it up…”) are the most uplifting moments of the entire song. It might sound less hopeful than the first half, but it is more hopeful.
The song’s conflict (a friend trying to help another friend in trouble, and both getting lost in terms of what’s best for each) is reminiscent of Pearl Jam’s “Save You.” By its end, we’ve seen both sides of a co-dependent relationship. The first half confronts a friend on the edge and negotiates dread and worry with a false, bouncy front; the second half offers hope in the face of some harsh realities. And as heady as all of that can be, here’s why it’s Song of the Week: it’s fun to listen to. You can geek out to the meaning of the “train” in the song, its sneaky placement, its function in the lyrics, etc. Or you can just hear and love the exuberance of the background vocals (“won’t go away…”) played against a wonderful guitar hook. You can engage this song as little or as much as you like, and you’ll still get something out of it.
Like the Beatles “A Day In the Life,” it brings this band’s two songwriters under one roof. It lets them use their own perspective, their own unique talents, to tell two sides of one story. As a concept, it’s beautifully-executed. As a piece of music, it’s just beautiful.