Monday, August 1, 2005

Records In Review: Dogs Die In Hot Cars--Please Describe Yourself

As far as band names go, the lads and lady from Fyfe rank down near the bottom, somewhere between Spooky Tooth and the BFGs. Perhaps locally, they're known as "The Dogs." I don't know, and I don't need to know, 'cos this is a bloody good debut album.

The comparisons to middle-period XTC have been flying fast and furious around the band, and they're worthy comparisons, in a way. The referential nature of "Apples And Oranges" is pretty clear, and singer Craig MacIntosh does sound eerily like Mr. Partridge, with a little bit of the warbliness of China Crisis' Gary Daly thrown in (kudos to my bro for noticing this). The songwriting, though, is much more direct and there certainly aren't many musical flights of fancy on PDY. The songs themselves owe as much to recent trends in power-pop as they do to '80s Britpop. There is a good-natured swagger about the band that is disarming, and which makes you very forgiving of minor deficiencies, of which there are a few--more on that later.

"I Love You 'Cos I Have To" opens the record with vigor and a white-boy ska inflection, although if you're thinking XTC (stop that!), I can't imagine the choruses of "Reel By Reel" or "Living Through Another Cuba" with that kind of guitar approach, which is more Foo Fighters than the lads from Swindon town . A catchy tune, but I'm not sure I'd want an entire album of it. "Modern Woman," the real grower on the album, alters the pace just enough, and here the instrumentation, particularly the guitars, is allowed more room to spread out. With "Celebrity Sanctum," we leave the frenetic rhythms behind and get instead a measured, pounding straight four beat that serves as the basis for a full-blooded vocal performance. Very good to bellow along with when drunk, I imagine. All right, I don't have to imagine. And who hasn't wanted to sing, "I love Lucy/I love Lucy Liu/Yes, I love her twice as much as you?" The vocal line is quite clever, never quite hitting the beats dead on in the verse and switching to mostly off-beats in the chorus. Folky acoustic guitar and a gentle downward stepwise chord progression introduce "Somewhat Off The Way," which is sentimental in all of the right ways, although as I get older I tend to find wistful musings upon youth by 24-year-olds a bit baffling. MacIntosh carries it off well, though, sounding just achy enough without being po-faced.

The middle of the album is where the pop gold is. "Apples and Oranges" stands on the embarrassment cliff-edge with its less-than-subtle pounding 4/4 rhythm section and stupidly happy chorus melody and lyric, but gets away with it superbly. It's the one track in particular that benefits from the band's complete lack of musical cynicism. "Godhopping," the best of the album's singles (and my favourite track), has great internal propulsion, as a one-handed piano line struggles to keep pace with the rhythm section. The chorus is a vocally saturated march that'll be stuck in your head for weeks. They do seem to favour a sort of declamatory block-harmony approach on the choruses, as this shows up once again in "Lounger," probably the most innocent-sounding track on the album.

Of course, just when you're thinking that life is worth living after all, the album's final act is a minor let-down. "Paul Newman's Eyes" is in many ways the equal of its immediate predecessors, but is the unfortunate victim of bad running order; it's far too similar to "Lounger" in terms of rhythm and pace in the verse parts. "Pastimes and Lifestyles" (isn't that missing a 't'?) is the weakest link in the chain. It's the most generically modern-power-pop track, and performed by less sympathetic players might end up sounding like Blink 182. That wouldn't be good for anybody. The wistful "A Glimpse At The Good Life" is the sister track, lyrically at least, to the gentler "Somewhat Off The Way," but its chorus is a bit too four-square for its own good. "Who Shot The Baby?" certainly isn't the most melodically inspired or most interestingly arranged track, but the band's characteristic spirit again rises to the occasion to conclude the set admirably, if not exactly memorably. And yes, kids, that was indeed 5/4 you heard!

The hell-for-leather pop approach of The Dogs (oh, dear) is, of course, part of their charm, but I do think that the players could in general do with a little more breathing room. The weaker tracks like the finale don't tend to have a great deal of internal detail, which is a shame 'cos there's some very good and characterful playing here. Synth horns and guitar play nicely and simply off of each other in the instrumental break on "Paul Newman's Eyes," but this kind of thing is a rarity. The lyrics, too, are a bit hit-and-miss. Good natured and certainly never glib, but occasionally naff. The chorus of "Lounger" comes to mind: "I get up when I like/wear anything I like/don't keep up with the cool/I'll make up my own rules." That wouldn't have washed when I was 15, and it won't wash now.

But enough bitching. The bad here is only comparatively bad. There's incredible staying power here, rare in my experience for music with this kind of directness about it. Buy it. Now. Read my evil twin Emerson's review here. For future reference, he usually says what I'm thinking, but in half the number of words.

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