Friday, April 04, 2008

A Ramshackle Trip

The Dodos - Visiter (Frenchkiss, 2008)

Naming your group after a famously extinct bird might be inviting trouble, but luckily The Dodos have made a record that is anything but dead. ‘Visiter’ is a raw, exciting, frequently playful and very enjoyable collection. Duos seem to be the group format du jour at the moment – possibly a delayed reaction to the success of The White Stripes. Now, not only do we have The Black Keys and The Kills but also The Ting Tings, Shy Child and, indeed, The Dodos. Like these other groups, The Dodos also have a bare bones sound, dependent on clattering percussion and a heavily strummed acoustic guitar or even the odd ukulele. It’s safe to say the group do not treat their respective instruments with due respect.

They have the endearingly ramshackle, whimsical appeal of Animal Collective without that group’s fondness for harsh electronic interjections. More interesting is the surprising versatility the group muster from these strictures – and the way they thread a variety of melodic approaches through this minimal, rusty sound. Whilst the music often sounds primal – it would probably be unfair to label them as primitivists, such is the full force and impact of this unpredictable and inventive material. There are notable traces of the American folk canon, particularly in guitarist Meric Long’s preponderance for finger picking and slide guitar excursions, but sometimes the simple thrill of a pounding rhythm takes the group to an entirely different place.

More importantly, most of these other skeletal duos, be they synth-pop adventurers or garage rock revivalists, seem to favour vocal lines that reject melody in favour of cold monotony or insincere aggression. The Dodos, by way of contrast, are well aware of the value of a good tune, and are particularly adept at creating tension by pitting such winsome melodies against rattling, relentless and dirty accompaniment. Long’s vocals often seem to take cue from other artists – there’s a distinct Stephin Merritt influence on ‘Winter’ (although he of course would have wickedly devised a much more irony-laden context), and there are occasional hints of Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst too, albeit with the self-righteousness and feigned emotion of the latter dutifully extracted. There’s nothing wrong with having influences though, especially when they are deployed with such urgency, and intelligently positioned within the context of otherwise maverick performances.

The tracks on ‘Visiter’ veer between the irresistibly cute (‘Ashley’, ‘Winter’) and the more ambitious explorations found on ‘Joe’s Waltz’ and ‘Paint The Rust’. Frequently, the group juxtapose their ideas with an irreverent verve and the lengthier tracks seem to adopt a variety of misleading disguises before thrillingly revealing their true nature. By focussing as much on how their instruments sound as much as what is played (from foot tambourines and woodblocks to the variety of guitar playing techniques on offer), they make a virtue of their limitations. When they do opt to add additional layers – saccharine backing vocals, keyboards on ‘The Season’ or the charming brass section on ‘Winter’ and ‘God?’, the effect is both surprising and supportive rather than overbearing.

For all the obvious reference points mentioned above, the lingering sense is that the Dodos have achieved something slightly different from the current vogue. The rhythmic impetus is paramount, but there’s little trace of the West African influences currently dominating the Brooklyn scene (Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend). I also have absolutely no reservations in calling this ‘pop’ music. It’s unlikely to crash into the UK top 10 of course, but it’s every bit as enervating and infectious as a Kylie record. Never underestimate the value of good fun. It would be great if the Dodos grew from temporary visitors to permanent residents.

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