Let’s say Clark Kent started a band. And not the new, hip Clark Kent of The WB; his abs are too toned to care about rocking out. No, this is old-school Christopher Reeve-style Clark Kent, with the reporter’s hat and the bad glasses. He’s starting the band. The perfect band. A damned-near Super Band. But not spandex-and-capes super. He’d want something that fit him. Not Superman. Him. Something subtle, that slipped by quietly while still being able to throw on some heat vision when necessary. It’d be sweet and awe-shucks, but also Mensa smart. And it would make you feel so good sometimes you’d just have to yell for no reason.
Basically, it would be Dr. Dog.
That might seem a little outlandish, but the band is pretty much living the Clark Kent life already. On the surface, Dr. Dog is far from earth-shattering: Five indie kids from Philly playing psychedelic rock with nerd-like precision—nothing new there. Ever since the Elephant 6 collective made lo-fi pop cooler than you, that stuff has been all the rage. And while the group’s debut, Easy Beat (National Parking), is so lo-fi it sounds like it was recorded on a boom box in someone’s basement—which isn’t too far from the truth. That’s nothing revolutionary either. Just underdog. Just Clark Kent.
Even the band’s rise out of the shadows, dragged up by My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, has hints of Lois Lane showing the big guy the ropes. “It was total luck of the draw,” recalls bassist and singer Toby Leaman. “Scott [McMicken, guitarist] gave him a CD after a show. And they get tons of CDs after shows, so the fact that he even listened to ours is just amazing. But he did and he loved it and wrote us this letter that said he’d do anything to help us, so we went on tour with them. It was great. They’d showed us really what to do.”
Not that the group didn’t already have a pretty good idea. All you have to do is listen to “The World May Never Know,” the crisp, forgotten White Album boozer ballad that opens Easy Beat, to understand that. The song is a tug-o-war between shimmering harmonies and a bass line that bounces like Silly Putty. But both come off so sugary that it doesn’t really matter who wins. It’s the struggle that matters—and makes the song super without even trying.
In fact, everything Dr. Dog does ends up that way. The reason: There’s just something completely human about the band—and Easy Beat. On disc, you can hear five guys in a room, playing music because it’s fun, not because it’s a career option—a rare thing these days. When McMicken shouts like Paul McCartney getting bit by a vampire during “The Pretender,” it’s because he can’t help it. The music is that good, and he knows it. The harmonies are swirling around like charts in a tornado. The piano is pushing the beat. And the guitars are seconds from going out of tune. But in that moment—the five minutes the tape was rolling—Dr. Dog is a real contender for the title of psychedelic champions of the world. Champions in 1969 no less, smashing up all the beauty and brilliance of the Beatles and the Beach Boys into a gumball for a Stephen Malkmus to chew on.
“It’s not like we’re strictly going for [that ’60s feel],” Leaman says. “It’s just what we like to hear. And the songwriting was just better then. There was just something about it. There are some good songs now, but something about the sound back then. The way the songs went together. We wanted to make an album like that, an album we’d want to hear.”
So far, it seems to be just what everyone else wants to hear, too. Critics who have stumbled on the band, be it at a show or through Easy Beat, have been stupefied by Dr. Dog. And kids at gigs have become quick converts. Dr. Dog is changing phone-booth-quick into an unintentional hero. “We’re actually getting handed CDs after shows now,” Leaman says with a laugh. “That’s a little strange.”
In fact, even in the face of adversity Dr. Dog is proving its Smallville-worthy mettle. Last week the band’s van was broken into, crooks taking several guitars, amps and even Leaman’s clothes. “Right now I am completely naked,” he jokes. But the group isn’t letting that stop it from pushing ahead and looking on the bright side.
“Well, you know, it’s not cool, but we’ll get along,” Leaman says. “We’ll borrow some equipment. We’ve already got the van fixed. It’s not plaguing anyone. We just want to keep playing.”
Ma and Pa Kent would be so proud.
DR. DOG with Ambulance LTD. The Velvet Room, 149 W. 200 South, Tuesday April 5, 8 p.m. 800-888-8499