Ever notice how you can pretty accurately tag the genre of an artist solely by their name? With few exceptions, you can look at an artist's name and figure out their sound. Slipknot? Of course they're a death-metal band. Lil' (insert any name) is most likely going to be a gangsta rapper. If you hadn't heard them, would you think The Buzzcocks was a group of backpack rappers, or a punk rock band?
There are also names that essentially scream one-hit wonder. Harvey Birdman and Jimmy Eat World are two examples of bands with clever names but whose music lacks the similar creativity and thought. They're examples of bands that we all listened to and that make you wish the band members spent as much time making good music as they likely did coming up with a clever moniker. With Birdman and JEW, the stars aligned, and the music gods blessed them with a catchy chorus.
Dr. Dog would seem to fall under the "clever name, throwaway music" category. I had never heard of the band despite just releasing their third album, "Fate." I thought the name suggested a playful rock band, something out of the Barenaked Ladies mold.
Then the music started, and my theory was instantly flipped on its head. "Fate" is one of the freshest albums I've heard this year. Touches of influence from bands of the '50s through the '70s are prevalent throughout, but Dr. Dog never lets those influences overtake its own sound.
Most of the songs feature the crispest instrumentals and harmonies you are likely to hear this year. "Hang On" begins as a guitar-driven love song that builds and then climaxes in the controlled recklessness that made "She Said She Said" such a favorite of The Beatles.
"The Old Days," clearly influenced by The Band, similarly exhibits a retro, yet updated sound. If The Band were to reunite today and try to tap back into the vein of "Music From Big Pink" with a modern twist, this is what they might come up with.
"The Rabbit, The Bat and The Reindeer," overcomes its questionable title and proves to be a catchy and hilarious middle-finger salute to an ex-friend. The song has the sound, and more impressively, the biting wit of vintage Steely Dan. ("No sticks, no stones could break my bones like you can / If I knew hate I'd call it love for you, man.")
The record builds with every song, each distinct from the one before and offering new twists to notice each listen. The album culminates in "My Friend," the strongest song of the set. It begins as a guitar-driven party song that builds to an anthemic level for the final two and a half minutes.
The name-labeling theory has been nearly infallible in my time as a music fan. Perhaps Dr. Dog is the band that disproves this theory by releasing one of the best albums of the year. Of course, they could also be the exception that proves the rule.