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.

In the last four years, Houndmouth have learned what it means to be a band. On their second album, Little Neon Limelight, they wear that wisdom like a badge of honor.

Less than a half-decade ago in the small Indiana city of New Albany, four pals were crafting tunes on their own, with few ambitions of turning those songs into a spectacle. That all changed when these friends crossed paths, and joined forces. Matt Myers, Shane Cody, Katie Toupin, and Zak Appleby became the drums and keys, guitars and harmonies of Houndmouth, and those personal numbers became the irrepressible core of an outfit turned magnetic.

In 2012, the group issued a self-titled EP on Rough Trade Records, the legendary imprint that signed them after seeing a single gig. One of 2013’s most incandescent debuts, their From the Hills Below the City LP affirmed what label owner Geoff Travis had heard: the sounds of Americana, renewed by the youthful glow of songwriters, musicians and pals unafraid to both celebrate and desecrate them.

Others noticed, too. The Guardian noted that, with From the Hills, “reservations fade,” while Rolling Stone’s David Fricke lauded the “earthy melancholy with a rude garage-rock streak.” Treks with the Drive-by Truckers and the Alabama Shakes followed, plus performances at the Newport Folk Festival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. In cramped clubs and big theaters alike, Houndmouth earned a reputation as a must-see act, their hooks, energy and charisma making them feel like a lifelong friend you’d just met.
That success, though, turned what had started as fun into something closer to work. Houndmouth learned that being full-time musicians required much more than the nine-to-five endeavors they had left behind in Indiana. But they grew into the role and grew from it. Experiences accumulated; perspectives expanded. Relationships stalled; others progressed.

“We’re not in party mode all the time anymore,” says Myers. “We’re refining how we write songs, writing about people we love, more important things than just nonsensical stuff.” If that was the charge, then Little Neon Limelight is an unapologetic success. These eleven songs sparkle, fade, and sparkle again, mixing innocence and experience, acceptance and aspiration, horror and hope.

Recorded by Dave Cobb in Nashville, Little Neon Limelight pairs the energy and nerves of raw first takes with the accents and moods of a more contemplative, thoughtful unit. Hearts are broken and friends are exiled, love grows cold and drugs do damage, leaders make mistakes and money turns tricks. On the acoustic “Gasoline,” one of the most poignant moments of Houndmouth’s catalog, Toupin barbs the confessions of a perennial party girl with the specter of mortality. “Maybe I’ll meet my maker on a bedroom floor,” she sings, her voice fighting against its own existential fade as bowed cello traces her words. Haunted by samples of the buoyant opener and single “Sedona” and the noisy filigree of a Moog, the beautifully downcast “For No One” stalks through personal blues with conviction. Its world-weariness has been incubated by the world it surveys.
But all of these feelings aren’t worn on Houndmouth’s collective sleeves: Despite the turmoil embedded within many of these songs, they are equal parts energetic proclamation, built with choruses that can’t be denied, harmonies that can’t be escaped and rhythms that can’t be resisted. With its carousel keyboards and start-and-stop drums, “Say I”” is a combination come-on and kiss-off that might make Keith Richards blush. For “15 Years,” Houndmouth conjures barroom bluster to voice the woes of a prisoner, backing the cries of his soul with howling organ and slashing guitar. When all the action drops into a shout-along, gospel-strong bridge, you might feel the urge to bust the fella out yourself. What’s the point of having the blues, Houndmouth seems to say, if you can’t have fun with them, too?

Nowhere is that balance of tragedy and triumph better than on the romp “My Cousin Greg,” a Band-style saga where each member takes a turn with a verse. Written about Myers’ actual cousin and former cover-band bandmate Greg, these four minutes present the title guy as a mischievous, enlightened and acerbic genius. He leaves Florida with his master’s degree in physics for a brainy job in Los Angeles, raising metaphysical hell and questions along the way. Greg thinks his cousin has it made, touring the country by van while playing the songs he’s written.

But Myers disagrees: “If you wanna live the good life/Well, you better stay away from the limelight,” the quartet sings as one in the chorus, repeating the mantra as though it were their only lifeline to sanity. For those long drives, it’s a reminder of the thrill and toil of what they now get to do. “For the first record, we were floating around after having been thrown into this,” explains Myers. “This time, we were able to write more about experiences than random stories, because that’s where we are in life. There had to be an attachment to what we recorded.”

For Little Neon Limelight, the charged, charming and preternaturally mature Houndmouth did exactly that.


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