Album review: Dr. Dog’s ‘Psychedelic Swamp’ — New perspective on lost songs

Usually bands leave behind old material because it just wasn’t up to snuff. For whatever reason those songs weren’t cutting it and the band decided to move on, usually for the better, though Bob Dylan and The Band’s “The Basement Tapes” are an example where some of that material has proven to be gold. Even with “The Basement Tapes,” those songs were more-or-less just given an official release after they had been in bootleg circulation for years, with a small amount of over-dubbing done for good measure. That is why Dr. Dog’s newest album “Psychedelic Swamp” is such a curious anomaly.

dr-dog-the-psychedelic-swampToby Leaman (bass), Scott McMicken (lead guitar), Frank McElroy (rhythm guitar),  Zach Miller (keyboards), Eric Slick (drums), and Dimitri Manos (multi-instrumentalist) decided for their ninth album to go all the way back to pre-Dr. Dog days when principal songwriters Leaman and McMicken were still kicking it around West Grove, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Dog still hadn’t fully metastasized. These songs are some of the earliest MCMicken and Leaman collaborations and the band decided to revisit them and breathe some new life into them with 15 years of experiences.

To be clear, this isn’t the band reissuing B-sides and rarities that they have cobbled together. “Psychedelic Swamp” is the band coming at these lost songs with a different perspective and using those initial plans as a jumping-off point to create something completely new and different. It is like they are building a big new house using the repurposed wood from a cabin down by the lake they abandoned completing halfway through. In a way, the band is collaborating with itself and the result is an album that sounds like Dr. Dog, but unlike anything it has done.

The album definitely has those psychedelic overtones implied in the title — it’s clean, tight and mesmerizing like an amethyst stone. “Golden Hind” ripples into the atmosphere on the band’s bendy hook and warm harmonies, definitely right in step with pop from the Summer of Love in 1967. “Dead Record Player” is a glazed, jangly boogie and the whimsical goofiness of “Fire On My Back” sends you into the clouds smiling and giggling. There are some more dirgey, Pink Floyd type jams too for the real heady, like “Holes In My Back” and “In Love” that reach out into the thin void of atmosphere right before space.

In a press release for the album, McMicken mentioned that that the original seedlings of songs that comprise “Psychedelic Swamp, “was the closest I’ve ever been to a true creative process.” It shows, as the band feels looser and more indulgent than any of its past albums. That absolute purging of creativity has no filter, which sometimes doesn’t always hit-the-mark, such as the gnarled “Badvertise” and squirking “Psychedelic Pop.”

However, it also allowed the band to go places weird and wonderful in “Engineer Says,” which slinks along to a spiky melody before surging guitars and rip it apart at the seams as it blows skyward, its bluesy rhythm spiraling back down to the ground in chaotic splendor. “Good Grief” sounds as if Gram Parsons collaborated with Wilco and is a serendipitous ride on a breeze of cosmic twang that eases into the airy “Swamp Is On” to close the album.

“Psychedelic Swamp” is the most challenging Dr. Dog album to get through, but the band has always been a fun ride and there are delightful excursions throughout. Keep your mind open and it might surprise you with how much you’ll grow to like it.

Dr. Dog
‘Psychedelic Swamp’
Release: Feb. 5, 2016
Notable Tracks: “Good Grief,” “Engineer Says,” “Dead Record Player”

Related story: Dr. Dog’s intimate performance in Reno: LINK

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