By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
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A couple of years ago, Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell described Dr. Dog to the New York Times thusly: "It's fun, happy music, good for partying at barbecues or playing hacky sack."
Indeed, the group's rollicking music feels like warm sun on your face and sand against your feet. It feels like summer.
But although last summer's Fate and its predecessor, We All Belong in 2007, have been well-received critically, touring has been the key for Dr. Dog's growth. The band's history stretches back to the late 1990s, when singer Toby Leaman and singer/guitarist Scott McMicken were sophomores at West Chester University, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia.
The pair goes further back than that, though. Friends since the eighth grade, they had written songs together for several years, drifted apart for a while, played in separate bands, and then reunited and formed Dr. Dog with an ever-changing lineup of college buddies. They recorded tons of songs in basements and then began practicing regularly in a remote barn (owned by the parents of the band's original drummer) in the middle of Pennsylvania farm country. There, Dr. Dog eventually began throwing hootenannies for friends, which Leaman still regards as the band's first gigs: "Nobody paid any money to come see us or anything, but there was beer there and we played music, so that definitely counts."
The big break came in 2004, when McMicken and his then-girlfriend went to see My Morning Jacket and after the show handed MMJ frontman Jim James a CD of the band's songs. James loved the music so much he wrote McMicken a letter a week later, offering to help Dr. Dog in any way he could. Soon the virtually unknown group was touring regularly with My Morning Jacket just as that band was breaking big.
Dr. Dog's profile steadily began to rise. There were multiple tours with phenom Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (the band even played at CYHSY frontman Alec Ounsworth's 2007 wedding). There were fawning write-ups in major magazines, overseas tours, and two more albums, released on a proper label (Park the Van). There were even appearances on Letterman and Conan.
Oh, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco also gushed to the New York Times: "They're very irreverent, but they've really studied their stuff... They sing out, they sing with gusto, which isn't something that I hear a lot these days, especially in younger bands."
And then came Fate. One might discern a more melancholy feel to the melodies and lyrics. The album's title provides the motif for all 11 tracks, and sometimes things turn cloudy as Leaman and McMicken alternate lead vocals. (In contrast to Leaman's grittier delivery, McMicken's high, dramatic warble sometimes recalls Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue.) But there are enough buoyant melodies, jubilant guitar hooks and delicious harmonies to cast aside most of the grays.
One might also spy a few sonic references to the past. Some of the band's detractors (including Pitchfork) insist Dr. Dog swipes too much from its influences, aping The Beatles, Beach Boys and The Band. Naturally, that rubs Leaman the wrong way.
"I love all those bands," Leaman says, "but I don't think any of our records sound like tributes to those bands."
But Leaman has little time or inclination to worry about that sort of thing. There are shows to play for his ever-growing audience, the next album to begin thinking about, and even bigger questions about the ultimate fate of Dr. Dog.
"The other day, our manager was like, 'What do you guys want to do? Where do you want to be, and how fast do you want to get there?'" Leaman recalls. "When we first started working with him four years ago and he asked the same questions, we were like, 'Well, we wanna be a band that makes records that people hear, and we wanna make enough money as a band where we don't have to work.' And now we're at that point.
"What are we trying to aspire to now?" Leaman muses. "That's what we're asking ourselves. It's a conundrum, but it's a nice one. I mean, in my own mind, I want people to think of me the same way they think of Neil Young. Crazy, right? But that's the ideal. That wouldn't be so bad, you know?"