Doctor's Tonic

There is such a thing as too many harmonies, even for Dr. Dog.

On the one hand, Dr. Dog is exactly like every other indie rock band on the planet. All the usual elements are in place on their latest album, Shame, Shame: woozy rhythms, off-kilter melodies, analog fetishization, goofy lyrics, garage psychedelia, folk rock, a stonery fascination with weird guitar sounds, and a sun-baked love of all things retro. On the other hand, they're not.

While countless bands like the Decemberists strain to be as adorably whimsical and quirky as possible, Dr. Dog's own whimsy seems to burst into being spontaneously, like a conjuror's bouquet. There's no pose or affect. Even when playing through layers of studio trickery (tape-speed manipulation is a favorite strategy), they sound as natural as a jug band on a front porch.

"You have to find a balance between trying to make something as awesome as possible and just letting it happen," says guitarist and co-frontman Scott McMicken of the Dr. Dog process. "You have to give it space to breathe."

That enchanted space between effort and chance he calls "Dr. Dog's secret code." If they have a secret weapon, it's their harmony vocals. "We've gotten a lot better at it," says McMicken. "At first it was just triads of oohs and ahs in the background. But when it comes more easily, you can do counterpoint and independent melodic lines."

A great example of this is "The Breeze" (from 2008's Fate), whose playful, intricate vocal arrangements lift the tune into a baroque paradise of pop pleasure. Of course, the trouble with vocal harmonizing is that, like steel pedal guitar, it always sounds good. Isn't there the temptation to put it on everything? "Yes! When we record, we end up taking off at least half of what we put on," McMicken says. "You don't want to lose the directness."

An unaffected directness—risking at any moment a descent into out-and-out dorkiness—is one of Dr. Dog's most endearing qualities (and explains their dorky name). You're more likely to see them grinning in the hats of their hometown Phillies than scowling under trendy little Civil War caps. It's an attitude that doesn't necessarily mesh all that well with chilly, hyper-self-conscious Seattle.

"Seattle strikes me as very hip, very insidery," says McMicken. "Do you know what I mean? That's OK, though. We can cut through that bullshit pretty fast.

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