Dr. Dog’s third studio album on Anti, B Room, marks the band’s greatest point of clarity in more than a decade of performing and recording. Their arrangements, while still ambitious, are much simpler, moving past the multi-tracked pastiche of earlier efforts into a unique and vibrant band voice. Indeed, it is this discovery of the band-collective as a compositional tool that makes B Room the most cohesive, soulful, loose, and plain fun record of their career.
The making of B Room begins, not with the sound of guitars and drums, but with jackhammers. When Dr. Dog reconvened this winter to record, they didn’t have demos, they even didn’t have a place to make them. What they had was the foresight to know that the recording process needed to be remodeled. After ending their lease at Meth Beach, where they had been headquartered for the past eight years,the band took on the commitment of constructing an entirely new recording space within a now defunct silversmith mill. As bassist-vocalist Toby Leaman put it, “The whole process of recording really started with building the studio.”
Rather than just cosmetically altering the appearance to make it feel like their own as they’d done at Meth Beach, the band built out the new studio, from the studs to the sheet rock to the recording booth. As Leaman now understands, making a record is a lot like doing construction. Both require a similar amount of frustration, intensity, and cohesion. By building the space first and releasing all of that emotion, the band was then free to engage in their creative process without the expectation or preconception that they admittedly had brought into other sessions.
This lack of pretense was a welcome departure for guitarist-vocalist Scott McMicken. His affinity for creating ethereal soundscapes through multi-tracked instrumentals and effects was always rooted in the potential for a piece of music to feel greater than the sum of its parts. But as he came to accept, “I used to think that all I needed was a tape recorder and a bunch of instruments in a room. Now I realize that I’m useless by myself.”
Dr. Dog manifested McMicken’s epiphany by recording many of the album’s tracks as live takes. On songs like “Minding the Usher” and “Love” the spontaneity of the band’s live performances seamlessly fuses with the intricacy of their kaleidoscopic composition. Both Leaman and McMicken credit this evolution to relying less on the pre-produced demos they brought to other sessions, and more on the musicians surrounding them; an intention not so easily accomplished by two people who have been playing music together since 8th grade.
But with the melodic groundwork of bandmates Frank McElroy, Zach Miller, and Dimitri Manos, along with the intuitive rhythm of drummer Eric Slick, everyone was released from the self-conscious inhibition risked when songwriting is flowing from a single source. After being told by more than one listener that many beats on the album had a hip-hop quality, Leaman responded, “What I love about Slick’s drumming is that it doesn’t have to tell you that you should be moving to the music, you just do it, and that’s what I think he has in common with hip-hop or funk or soul.”
Leaman’s last thought touches on a current that travels throughout B Room. This album, in its purest form, is a soul album. It may be obvious as the first track opens with the Gamble and Huff inspired, “The Truth.” But as the album progresses, the music continues to take on a soulfulness that is vibrant in its simplicity. AsMcMicken put it, “The hallmark of soul music for me is that the arrangements are simple rather than virtuosic, and that the sound creates a feeling that is intuitive rather than intellectual.”
McMicken is proved true in the foot stomping revelry of “Nellie,” while the intuitive approach peaks in the almost spiritual “Too Weak to Ramble” where McMicken and Leaman strip everything down to just two guitars and Leaman’s fervent and tender vocals.
Although “The Sound of Philadelphia” influence may fade after the first track, the city that has helped define Dr. Dog’s sound remains a heavy presence on the album. When asked about the city’s role in their music, Leaman pointed out that many of the famous acts coming out of Philly were collaborations, from Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti to Hall and Oates. In his words, “Just a bunch of weirdoes playing music and taking risks together.” Assuming that Leaman is referring to Dr. Dog’s own journey with his deprecating analysis, he reveals a maturity and genuine self-awareness that is the essence of not just the album, but the band’s current place in time. From the construction of the studio to the recording of the album that took place within its walls, the band has found that boundless moment of creativity where their spirit and soul coexist.