There are only seven different plots in literature. There are only seven notes on the musical scale. There are only three primary colors. Art is made from a very small set of tools; originality comes with how you use them. All visual art owes a debt to nature. All music owes a debt to... the Beatles?
It's true of pop music, at least—true enough that the term Beatles-esque has become a useless signifier. For every time the term is coughed up by a lazy critic, there's a band that uses overdubs or sings harmonies or makes pop music with a piano and otherwise has no connection to the Fab Four. But there's no escaping the word in describing the sunny-day psych-pop of Dr. Dog. Take the jolly bounce of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and space it out with a lung-busting bong hit and you get the basis of Dr. Dog's sound.
"Everything is derivative of something," says Toby Leaman, bassist, vocalist, and one of two primary songwriters for the Philly five-piece. "We've all listened to the Beatles a jillion times. But we all listen to tons and tons of stuff. [The comparison] doesn't really bother me—they're the best band ever. It's better being compared to the Beatles than Live or something."
"I was just trying to think of a band that's hands down a crappy band."
Right. The point is, you're gonna sound like somebody, and it might as well be your nomination for Best Band Ever. The question is, do you do something new with the influence? And do you do it well?
For all their self-admitted derivativeness, Dr. Dog are eminently likable; they use the limited tools at their disposal in a way that's hard to resist. This summer's We All Belong, their second full-length on Park the Van Records, feels like an enthusiastic hug and high five from an old friend precisely because of its familiar source material, because of how comfortable both the listener and the band are with it. And because of what Dr. Dog do with it: If there were even a hint of irony to the band's gawky exuberance, it would immediately smack of bullshit.
"We were all in bands before that were tongue in cheek, like, 'Can you believe I'm in a band? How funny is this that we're onstage and you're down there?'" Leaman says. "If that's why you're playing music, you're an asshole. When you let all that stuff go and let it stand on the merit of the songs, the merit of how well you play as a band, there's no room for irony."
Full of radiant three-part harmonies and show-stopping major chords, We All Belong is as earnest an indie record as you'll hear this year. There's no question that these guys are having a good time playing music. Their giddy, geeky thrill will determine whether you roll your eyes or open your arms to what they do.
"Yeah, well, [being in Dr. Dog] is awesome," Leaman says. "Everybody in the band has been in a bajillion bands and that's all we've ever done and that's all we're good at. Now that we're finally having some success and we're able to quit our jobs, why not be superhappy about that? We're doing exactly what we wanna be doing. There's no reason to act like it's crappier than it is."
That's not to say that We All Belong is a picture of undiluted, wide-eyed joy. Lyrically, songs like "My Old Ways," "Worst Trip," and "Die Die Die" are cramped with the tentative anxiety and confusion of modern existence—"Of what it's like to be around," Leaman explains. He has a hard time putting a finger on it. "That seems to be the one prevailing theme in all our songs: 'So. This is what it's like to be... here.' It's all real vague."
It's a classic contrast of happy music/anxious lyrics (see the Smiths, Quasi, etc.), and it adds up to a terrific record and a terrific live show. Jeff Tweedy, who recently handpicked Dr. Dog to open a string of September dates with his band Wilco, ascribed "a certain drunkenness" to them that he finds appealing. Perhaps that was the common thread between the groups. Like Wilco, Dr. Dog play with their songs onstage. They're ragged and jumpy, obviously professional, but as much in thrall to the crowd as the song.
"You want people to have as much fun watching you as possible," Leaman says. "The best way to do that is to get the songs to the point where you can act like an idiot while you're playing them."