At the end of our long, happy day of singing, dancing and arguing about it, music isn’t “about” anything; music just “is,” a highly organized disturbance of air and a tympanic response – almost a thing that you can grab, but not quite, because it’s at least 50 percent made of time.
Language wishes that it could just “be” too, but its game is the “about” game. In his meta-poem, his manifesto poem “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish famously wrote, “A poem should not mean but be.” MacLeish argued, with examples, that poetry should disdain argument and aspire to the fluid “be”-ing of music or the palpable thingness of the visual arts, not that it could ever actually achieve either. It just “should.”
I don’t know why music would ever want to leave the garden of being, but when it meets language in what we call “song,” it does; music forsakes its pure and wild state to marry words and accept all the problematic terms of the “about” field. Now, all of a sudden, unhappy music finds itself “about” silly love, politics, trucks, California, murder and a handful of other subjects deemed meet and fitting by who-all I’m not sure – that guy, at Bacchus, who once told me that Los Doggies were talented, but that they marginalized themselves by singing silly songs that are about the songs that they are singing…about.
Indeed, Los Doggies, a New Paltz indie rock institution, have solved the “about” problem of songwriting largely by going meta and circular with it, as MacLeish did in “Ars Poetica.” Nearly half of their songs are not just about songs, but about the present song: reflexive, self-narrating, complex compositions in a tongue-in-cheek, Wagnerian hard rock vein, the lyrics of which describe what is going on harmonically, structurally and referentially, right now, within the music. Some people, at Bacchus, might find that in-gazing, closed-loop focus kind of barren, bereft of trucks and murder, evasive, aloof and silly; but we don’t care about those people right now. They’re good people, talented people, but they need to make room for more things under Heaven.
Look, when you sit down to write a song, you’ve only got a couple of options. There are girls and boys and all the related phenomena of “hard times.” There are nature, fair and foul, and boating accidents. Then, after that, all that’s really left for a topic is the task before you, the song you are trying to write itself, right now, crying out to be both written and written about: Auden’s mouth in a Petri dish. Van Morrison, I have been told, wrote an entire double album of songs, Hymns to the Silence, about his inability to write a single darn song anymore. I get that.
On Los Doggies’ astonishingly good new album e’rebody, the sprawling and hilarious song “Black Unstemmed Noteheads” is the epic keynote of this meta-musical impulse of theirs; but, in that style, “Westminster Quarters” is the true sleeper and keeper of the bunch: an achingly beautiful, densely colored, slow-blossoming bit of genuine musical wonder spun out of the four notes of a clock tower, and one of the best things that they’ve ever done.
And they’ve done a lot, you know. In fact, I think Los Doggies are the most important New Paltz band of the last ten years. Idiosyncratic-as-if-they-had-a-choice, armed for bear with their chops and theory ears (and their chest of instruments), Evan, Jesse and Matt changed the whole tone on the street with their weirdness and cleared the way for a generation of inventive, naïve, arty and experimental bands to take hold in the bars and parlors of JamTown, USA. Thank you, Los Doggies – more than you’ll ever know.
The light musical didacticism, the preteen thematic focus and the occasional tone of Cold War filmstrip edu-ganda may remind you of They Might Be Giants at times. Their reductive, repetitive, pixillated language play would give Gertrude Stein a thrill. Their quick-change musical skittishness evokes Zappa, Mr. Bungle, Naked City, Rush and cartoons. Of those comparisons, the Zappa and Bungle ones are the most pertinent – for philosophical, not musical reasons. Hovering over the Doggies’ shenanigans is the same question of authenticity and intent: Do they flit through these styles in mockery and playful contempt, exposing again and again how dead-simple the monolithic achievements of rock are for the quick-witted; or is it all done in genuine love and homage? Well, both. Neither. You’ll never know. They probably don’t even know.
But here’s a thing: When a band sticks around this long – even one as unusual as Los Doggies – you begin to think that you know what they are. You think you’ve got them. Oh, they’re versatile enough. They’ve always been able to throw off a punky, snarky little delight like “Black Out,” or a gooey slick of faux-Euro lounge jazz like “Pari Passu,” or the mock-stentorian metal of “Buddha Thompson” and a million varieties of rich, modal strangeness. But maybe it had gotten to a point with this band where surprise was their only surprise.
E’rebody blows that thought away exactly one track in. Without sounding like any other band ever, “Spring Hill” announces a new Los Doggies. In fact, its lack of referentiality and meme-play are what make it so different. “Spring Hill” is a single-concept, single-effect song that twists and grows one musical figure, splits it into fugues and returns to a wholesome serenity. Its lyrics are clean and numinous poetry of nature and community and wonder: no winking, no self-reference, no music theory – just a gorgeous, spiraling, pastoral (but still hard-rocking) morning song.
Two tracks later, “How to Make a Mouth in Nature” resumes this direction with even more audacity and commitment. It’s a thudding and clacking, bone-and-skin jungle epic with virtually no diversions in course. Its lyrics construct elaborate musical instruments out of the animal kingdom – a florid, lushly detailed epic of animism, anatomy and immanent spirituality. It’s really incredible.
In a rather typically counterintuitive way, Los Doggies are following their new release with a soft hiatus while one of the members prepares for the imminent arrival of his own little animal kingdom. But you can catch them at Oasis in New Paltz this Saturday, April 26, bar time, as part of the Ludwig Day fundraiser. While their sound-sourcing dexterity is the stuff of local legend (the drummer and the bassist both often play multiple instruments at once), they will forevermore have a hard time accounting for the hundreds of layers of detail, stacked harmonies and sonic enrichment on their remarkable new album, which everyone should buy – buy, I said – but they are a great, hard-rocking live band just the same, and they will edify you with some sung music theory, too.
Los Doggies, the Big Takeover, Ranger Rick of Los Thujones, Saturday, April 26, 10:30 p.m., $4 for 21+, $6 for 18–21, Oasis Café, 58 Main Street, New Paltz. To hear e’rebody, visit https://losdoggies.bandcamp.com.