"The Psychedelic Swamp" isn't just a concept album. It's an alternate history, a pointed satire about America, a multi-media excursion into another realm of reality and a search for happiness set against a backdrop of indecision, insecurity and innovation. Most importantly, "The Psychedelic Swamp" is a damned fine rock record and the finest album yet from the Philadelphia natives of Dr. Dog.
Lead guitarist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Scott McMicken and bassist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Toby Leaman have been making music together since eighth grade. Their voices are distinct from one another, yet blend perfectly, with McMicken's sound reminiscent of Daniel Johnston at his most focused and Leaman bringing a raspier Americana croon to the band. "The Psychedelic Swamp" was their first album together as Dr. Dog and it is also their most recent, but this isn't a re-release. In fact, much of it sounds completely different except for the songwriting.
Leaman and McMicken knew that the 2001 release of the album wouldn't be their final word on The Swamp. "When we were done," McMicken explains, "we knew there was going to be another round with it. Not so much that we wanted to re-do what we had done with it, but built into the concept was that there was another version of this that was going to need to be made to complete that narrative. Essentially the narrative is that we didn't make that tape. That is what was given to us by this guy and his instructions were to take this verbal, long mess and translate it into American pop music that could be understood by the masses."
Dr. Dog has taken the concept of "The Psychedelic Swamp" and created a rock opera heavy on symbolism, thematic depth and duality, but bringing a riff-laden and feverishly catchy sound along for the ride.
It's important to understand how their sound evolved in order to get what they have done here. Following their 2001 debut, next came the lo-fi 60s pop harmonies of 2003's "Toothbrush" with a crescendo to the ramshackle freedom of 2005's "Easy Beat," which would hint at what would come with 2007's "We All Belong." That album sees Dr. Dog adding psych rock to the three and four-part harmonies they had perfected over the first few records, giving the band's sound a much richer texture to build on. The 2008 release of "Fate" combined a newly discovered country-tinged Americana sound with massive chamber-pop harmonies and gorgeous heartbreak songwriting to create their most fluid and focused album to date.
In 2010, "Shame, Shame," came with a huge departure from their prior influences, with tighter songwriting and darker melodies. The record plays like a view into an alternate universe where everything didn't work out so well. By 2012, "Be the Void" was an exercise in catchy songwriting, as earworm after earworm is unspooled. The one-two-three punch of "Lonesome," "That Old Black Hole" and "These Days" teach a master class in pop songwriting. More recently, "B-Room," released in 2013, roams around in slinky '70s R&B, funk-tinged with psych rock.
"The Psychedelic Swamp" remembers those records and holds them dear, but is looking off into a new sky. The record feels like the tip of an iceberg, hiding so many more layers and mysteries in its depths. The album recalls so many time periods and genres from the 8-bit nostalgia of the '80s to the dreamy folk summer nights of the '60s. This record shares a look into America's own history with pop music and music in general and, regardless of age, creates a tapestry of emotion in four-minute masterstrokes. Songs like "Bring My Baby Back to Me," "Engineer Says" and "Golden Hind" feel like instant classics that have always been a part of the national consciousness.
Dr. Dog's collaboration with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company for the immersive "Swamp is On" production, shows there is still so much to explore. Concept albums usually have a sense of either self-aggrandizement or self-flagellation, but "The Psychedelic Swamp" is more of an exploration. McMicken says, "There's one common theme, which is about the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of wisdom, essentially, and manifesting that through your life's decisions. This album is about that kind of creative spirit and fostering that in your life and in your malleability of perspectives." These seem like extraordinarily lofty goals for pop music, but those goals created an album of this brilliance.
Wednesday, Feb. 3, 7 p.m.
Midtown Ballroom, 51 NW Greenwood Ave.
$27 adv., $30 door