Falling in love with The Dodos back in 2008 was so easy. The duo of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber effortlessly blended together ramshackle acoustic guitar fingerpicking, African-style rhythms and indie pop into a hybrid so organic it seemed to outright defy nature. That first record was “Visiter” and all-out jams like “Red and Purple”, “Jodi” and “Fools” were often so intensely strummed that it always felt like the song would break down at any moment because the guitar simply fell apart. It was really exciting and intense to listen to that album, which is probably why their follow-up, 2009’s “Time to Die” was regarded as such a disappointment. There were a number of factors that conrtibuted to this letdown of a sophmore album. Those changes included adding a third member Keaton Snyder which changed the group dynamic, relying on the ultra-clean production work of uber-producer Phil Ek, and the decision to place more of a focus on traditional melody rather than the off-the-rails, freewheeling style they were used to. Slower, denser and cleaner were the end results, and many balked at that. As if they’ve learned their lesson, The Dodos have set about trying to right the ship on their third album “No Color”. Their trinity of band members has now returned to its original twosome state, “Visiter” producer John Askew is once again behind the boards, and siren Neko Case was kind enough to contribute her pipes to back up Long’s vocals on a majority of the tracks. On the surface, it seems that everything’s coming up Dodos.
The booming thump of the bass drum at the start of “Black Night” signals that things are once again in their right place, and the rustic fingerpicked acoustic guitar that joins it moments later pushes it over the top. The pace is brisk and only gets brisker as the song chugs along through the imaginary alleyways of verses and main arteries of choruses, and the structural integrity of the song is such that it breaks from the usual verse-chorus-verse tradition but not far enough to call the main hook anything less than catchy. It’s one great reminder of how amazing The Dodos can be when fully left to their own devices. “Black Night” blends straight into “Going Under” without a moment’s hesitation, as if the two tracks are joined at the hip. The six minute adventure starts as a slower, more well-adjusted track with Neko Case making her first background vocal appearance. Once it hits the exact middle of the song though, the dam breaks open and a rush of buzzing noise and pure energy comes surging forward to send things into the stratosphere. Such a burst of noise might be considered jarring were it not well earned and smartly arranged. “Good” starts as a gallop and then moves into a full out stride, continuing to capitalize on the momentum the record has already established. “Is it better to be on or be good?”, Long asks. In this case, the band is not merely on and good, but instead on and great. Neko Case does sprinkle a bit of extra magic on “Sleep”, a song that would have been better titled “No Sleep” because it’s essentially about insomnia. The track races past like your mind does when all you want is the peace and quiet so you can pass out. It seemingly comes from a number of different places too, embracing that freeform style The Dodos have espoused at their best while also adding to that spaced out and unfocused mental state described in the lyrics.
After racing through the first few tracks at a highly brisk pace, “Don’t Try to Hide It” begins the slower and more subtle second half of “No Color” with a bit of parental-like support from your “parents” of Meric Long and Neko Case. We’ve all got little things about ourselves that would be interpreted as weird by others, and this is a song about proudly displaying your most unique qualities. The beginning of “Hunting Season” features a touch of the ‘ol vibraphone, and it’s enough to wonder if it was taken from a Keaton Snyder session before he exited the band or if that’s just a coincidence. It’s also not the most exciting or catchiest Dodos song, though Long’s emotional vocal performance is one of the highlights. It’s just the opposite that helps make “Companions” a better song than it has any right to be – intricate guitar playing and a very small bit of violin. The melody itself is pretty bland and ineffective, but the way that fingerpicked guitar rolls along is quite impressive. closing track “Don’t Stop” has the exact same issues, technically impressive but lacking in most other aspects. It does build energy just a little, and the incorporation of electric guitar and some vocal harmonies make for a good summation of the entire record. As a microcosm of the whole album then, that final song is only a little more than halfway good.
As exciting as it is to have the core team of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber recording and performing once again as a duo, along with their old producer John Askew back in place, this original recipe for success doesn’t always fully succeed as we see on “No Color”. There are tons of great things about this new album, including some of the most exciting and energetic melodies that The Dodos have come up with in some time. The return to the reliance on those shaky acoustic guitars and offbeat percussion is a huge plus too, as are Long’s lyrics – more vague and less clunky than they’ve ever been before. Not every song is winner though, and the second half of the album is much less compelling than the first. It’s not an energy thing, though arguably that does factor in just a little bit. If all the songs were as briskly paced as those first few we’d be worn out before the last couple even started. Pacing is part of the problem, with all the excitement right out of the gate and none really saved for the finish line. “Visiter” spread out the moments of grandeur pretty evenly, though to be fair about half of that record’s fourteen tracks could be called individual highlights. Hooks are also an issue. Songs like “Black Night” and “Sleep” are strong but don’t have the full staying power of a “Jodi” or a “Paint the Rust”. Maybe it just takes some time for them to fully sink in. After all, “Time to Die” was and is still the worst Dodos record, but these days it seems less like the trainwreck everyone labeled it as two years ago. Perhaps a year from now “No Color” will have that same effect, only rising in esteem from its current position as a pretty strong “comeback” album for the band. Thanks in large part to some serious freeform and fun songs, The Dodos have proven they know how to correct past mistakes and challenge the listener once again.