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Dr. Dog makes something old into something new

Dr. Dog. (Louis Kwok)
Dr. Dog. (Louis Kwok)
Alan Sculley

Dr. Dog has taken the idea of making something old new again to a whole new level with its latest album, “Psychedelic Swamp.”

Fans of the band may recognize the title because “Psychedelic Swamp” was the name of the Philadelphia band’s self-released debut cassette.

But the new “Psychedelic Swamp” is not a remake of the original. It’s a reinvention, in which various bits and parts from the cassette were expanded upon and developed into an entirely new collection of songs.

The original cassette, made in 2001 when the original lineup of Dr. Dog was forming and just starting to play shows around the Philadelphia area, was hardly a fully formed work.

It had very little distribution and has been unavailable for many years, but “Psychedelic Swamp” did have a lyrical concept, said guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken.

“The tape was kind of a message to us, Dr. Dog, from this guy Phrases, who landed in the swamp and learned sort of a valuable life lesson while there,” McMicken said in a mid-January phone interview.

“Then he felt the need to send his message back to earth, and he chose us to be the ones to translate it because he was aware that what he was doing and his ways of communicating, while they made sense in the swamp, were pretty much incomprehensible to anyone here. … So he chose us to take that kind of garbled mess and turn it into the biggest rock album ever made, so that it could be spread around the globe to the masses.”

But the music itself wasn’t as defined. McMicken said the original music didn’t so much form an album in the conventional statement as it was a statement about the band members’ intention as they moved forward to experiment and follow their muse wherever it took them. This helps explain the cassette’s free-form, shape-shifting musical nature.

“The original album is like 35 tracks and almost two hours long, McMicken said, noting that the tape has a different song sequence and flow of music from the new re-imagined version of “Psychedelic Swamp.”

“There’s just a ton of stuff on there (the original cassette). And it ranges, I mean, I guess it all is music, but a lot of it is more of a kind of ambiance. The original tape is less an album and more of this, like, I don’t even know what the word would be. From track to track you’re traveling through either something that would be a song with sort of narrative aspects in the lyrics into things that are soundscapes that are almost like field recordings from the ‘Swamp.’ ”

The new “Psychedelic Swamp,” by contrast, is very much a cohesive set of a dozen songs (plus a short spoken-word interlude).

Songs like “Dead Record Player,” “Fire on My Back” and “Badvertise” are concise, poppy and punchy, but there is also quirkiness to several songs (the gauzy textures of “Golden Hind,” the spacey feel of “Holes in My Back” or the glammy tone of “Bring My Baby Back”) that shows Dr. Dog has retained the sense of musical adventure that helped inspire the original cassette.

McMicken said there were very few limits as to how far the band – which also includes Toby Leaman (vocals, bass, guitar), Frank McElroy (guitar), Zach Miller (keyboards), Eric Slick (drums) and Dimitri Manos (percussion/multi-instrumentalist) – went in turning the original source material into music that was essentially new.

“For instance, the one tune on the album, ‘Fire on My Back,’ that form on the tape was actually only, like, 30 seconds long and one chord. So like that’s just kind of a testament to how far we could take things,” McMicken said.

“So even the essence of the songs themselves, as far as their chord structure and melody was also as up for grabs as anything else,” he said. “Lyrics were really the only thing we were beholden to. But even in that sense, we were adding lyrics to kind of lengthen things and make them work in longer songs for things that were actually just short little snippets on the tape. So yeah, from the architecture of the songs themselves to the arrangements, there was just total wide open freedom.”

Chances are the new “Psychedelic Swamp” songs will evolve further as Dr. Dog performs them on tour this winter. It’s possible, McMicken said, that the new album will be performed in its entirety as part of the show. But fans can expect plenty of other music to be included in the set.

“As per usual, we’re continuously going through the back catalog and keep up with that stuff,” he said. “There are kind of the standards, the staples of our set, and then there is a rotating cast of old tunes that either have been taking a break and come back to life (in the set) at some point. As per usual, we’re going out with a whole lot of songs to choose from, so the set can vary pretty wildly.”

Alan Scully is a freelance journalist based in Florida.

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