As the man himself will attest, whenever Bobby Bare Jr. plays Seattle, it's a party. When we were saying our early morning goodbyes at the after-hours bash following his sold-out show at the Sunset Tavern last January, Bobby filled me in on his plans for his next Seattle show. "We're coming with Dr. Dog in March," he said in the hushed, excited tone of a kid who's just found out he's getting a trip to the moon, a pony, and unlimited access to an Xbox for Christmas. "You think this show was crazy," he said, swirling his finger heavenward and chuckling ominously, "just wait till we come back with Dr. Dog. They're so good it hurts."
Dr. Dog With Bobby Bare Jr. and Jeffrey Lewis. Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., 441-5611, www.thecrocodile.com. $12 adv/$14 DOS. 9 p.m. Sat., March 17.
If that hedonistic endorsement wasn't enough, Dr. Dog come with glowing references from every conceivable source these days, including Rolling Stone, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, and the talent bookers at Conan O'Brien's Late Night, who have just scheduled the Philadelphia-based quintet for a mid-March appearance. The avalanche of accolades is in response to Dr. Dog's fourth release, We All Belong, an utterly gorgeous, tightly crafted assembly of golden pop songs steeped heavily in the band's obvious '60s influences—particularly the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
"I feel like everybody's probably always been into the Beatles because they are so ubiquitous," theorizes co-frontman and bassist Toby Leaman. "I remember getting Abbey Road in the seventh or eighth grade and [initially] freaking out. But when you're young, you don't want to listen to 'old people's music,' so it wasn't until later that I really got into them. It was the same with the Beach Boys."
The nexus of Dr. Dog was formed when Leaman began playing with Scott McMicken, an eighth-grade classmate who would eventually become his longtime songwriting partner and the Dog's other vocalist and guitar player. "We just hit it off immediately," recalls Leaman. "We were both into the same bands," he says, citing Jimi Hendrix and Superchunk as early favorites. "But we didn't even start out by playing cover songs like a lot of other young kids. We started writing originals together right away."
After taking shape under the moniker Raccoon, Dr. Dog coalesced into a working band in 1999 when the pair began recording The Psychedelic Swamp in their basement studio, eventually self-releasing the 35 shambolic, stoner-rific tracks in 2001. After a few lineup shuffles and a more focused sophomore release, 2003's Toothbrush, Dr. Dog received a helping hand from their old friend Jim James. The My Morning Jacket frontman tapped them to open on his band's It Still Moves tour, a kindness that helped cultivate a grassroots cult following. By the time Dr. Dog released the critically lauded Easy Beat in 2005, they had earned their road-warrior stripes and were well-poised for broader success.
When they returned to their home studio to record We All Belong, they realized it was time to expand their sonic palette beyond their customary half-inch tape, 8-track recording approach and invest in a 2-inch, 24-track setup. Though the constrictions of their previous lo-fi medium had resulted in plenty of studio-trickery lessons learned, they were eager to pull in both more instrumental embellishments and the more celestial-sounding harmonies that were running through their heads, thanks in part to a fascination with the a cappella versions of songs from the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds boxed set. "It's always sort of fun to work with limitations, but sometimes it can bring you down," explains Leaman. "We needed more space."
An obsession with Brian Wilson and company is hardly unprecedented in the world of indie rock, but few bands are able to take that affection and forge it into something as richly developed and earnestly executed as We All Belong. That the band also claims a feverish admiration for the sinister charms of Tom Waits adds a piquant edge to Dr. Dog's compositions and keeps them from sliding down the slippery slope from sunny to saccharine.
Much of We All Belong's success is also due to an obviously disciplined approach to watertight pop composition. "The main thing is that it should be concise," asserts Leaman when we discuss the key factors in his songwriting equation. "Not sprawling, no dead space. No hanging on to something for 16 bars. The bridge and verse both have to be as good as the best part of the song—the chorus shouldn't be the only strong part."
With that philosophy in mind, it's no surprise that McMicken and Leaman became fast friends with Bobby Bare Jr. after opening for the notorious Nashville rascal at a show in Philly. Bare Jr.'s passion for pop perfection is natural common ground, though Leaman is quick to point out the obvious. "Hell, it's easy to become fast friends with Bobby—doesn't everybody?"