Dr. Dog’s latest album could very easily have been their first. It could have been their only album; or it could have never been made at all. It’s either a refined culmination of 15 years of collaborative music-making or the blunt instrument on which they cut their teeth. This chicken v. egg debate will be for historians to decide; fact is that if “The Psychedelic Swamp” was a half-baked idea back in 2001, it has been reborn in 2016, fully baked.
In the waning days of our previous millennium, an envelope arrived at the Dr. Dog Bungalow. Initially misplaced among credit card solicitations and clothing catalogs, it had no postage and smelled of a fusty funk, as if it had once been wet. The return address said simply “Phrases from the Psychedelic Swap.”
Inside was a cassette tape. “Play me,” it said. So they did, and they grew 10 feet tall — tall enough to reach the key but too big to fit through the door.
Phrases, they learned, was a man who had been neither happy nor sad, neither success nor failure, during his time on Earth. He just kind of was. Or wasn’t. Was or wasn’t, depending. In his quest for satisfaction, he found himself susceptible to hollow promises. He drank Coke, but it did not make him smile. He used Old Spice, but beautiful women did not whistle at him. He wore Air Jordans, but jumped no higher. And one day he awoke from a beautiful dream to find himself still lying next to the wife he neither loved nor hated. Lying still, still lying. Same gray room, same gray life. He knew he had to slip away. It took only a slight turn of the wheel.
Life in the Psychedelic Swamp, a refracted reflection of reality, gave Phrases all that he was looking for. Music took on new dimensions. Food tasted better. Love was sweeter. At least initially. The swamp was draped heavily with abstraction, where there was nothing too garbled, random or chaotic to be separated from the absolute need for meaning.
But soon the same old hollowness crept back into his soul. The romance of harvesting dry rot and herding acorn weevils under the swamp’s moon-sun had dulled into a humdrum kind of workaday existence. He began to regret his decision to leave Earth for the Psychedelic Swamp. Things were not really better there, only different. Remember what the old swamp folks say: The bladderwort is always yellower on the other side of the schist. This was his epiphany. Life, flawed as it is, is meant to embraced.
It was this message, more or less, that came through on that funky old cassette tape in the mail. And “Play Me,” didn’t mean simply “Listen to Me,” but literally “Play Me!” It was a call to action, urging Dr. Dog to record a great pop album, to give meaning to Phrases, backed by oohs and ahhs and layered harmonies, to top the charts, capture the imagination and bring joy to the people.
Why us, the band wondered. They were so young, mostly just a cover band, sort of lost in their own verdant vegetative environment, fiddling around in the basement with a loose assemblage of chords and riffs, on equipment held together with duct tape and rust. They were not ready. To do justice to “The Psychedelic Swamp,” they first had to find themselves as a band. They were flawed, reluctant messengers, like Spider-Man or Siddhartha, bestowed with a responsibility they did not yet accept. They needed to face the trials and tribulations of life on the road, to hone their skills as songwriters and performers.
Years went by, and the band became bogged down in life of a recording-touring rock’n’roll operation. The tape was often lost, only to be found in dusty corners or falling out of a seldom used guitar case. Someday, the band vowed, we will get back to “The Psychedelic Swamp.”
That day is now. Swamp is on. Phrases will be heard.
“The Psychedelic Swamp” is Dr. Dog’s ninth album, and third studio release with the ANTI- label. Most of the songs were among the first ever written together by Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman along with the friends and cohorts that would evolve into Dr. Dog. This early endeavor helped shape their worldview of a label-defying, multi-hyphenated indie-psychedelic-rock-folk-basement-Americana-touring band. Many artists might cringe at the idea of revisiting the works of their younger selves. Not Dr. Dog. “I’ve never looked back at that time with anything other than real affection,” McMicken said. “The original tape could have disappeared and never been heard again, and I still would have held it dear to my heart, because it was the closest I’ve ever been to a true creative process.”
If the seeds that were planted in “The Psychedelic Swamp” helped give voice to many of Dr. Dog’s songs over the years, this revisiting finds the fruit of 15 years of collaboration in full bloom. Fans will recognize the harmonies, the puckish wordplay and the introspection, but it’s impossible to place these songs in the Dr. Dog chronology. The album opens with “The Golden Hind” echoing the dreamy low-fi pops and whistles found on the album “Easy Beat” (2005), while the next song, “Dead Record Player,” could just as easily been found among the smooth front-stoop soul of “B-Room” (2013). It’s as if past, present and future Dr. Dog are collaborating in a kind of timeless recording studio. Even the songs within “Psychedelic Swamp” borrow from each other: Leaman’s “Bring My Baby Back” is a whole song sprung from a single line in “Engineer Says.”
Leaman says this is not a rock opera with a traditional A-to-Z narrative arc, but rather a tapestry of Phrases’ search for happiness. “I’m comfortable calling it a concept album, for sure,” he says.