J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Return Trip

that dog.
Totally Crushed Out!
(DGC ; 1995)


The 1990s were a really amazing time for indie-minded music. The 80's onslaught of manufactured, highly coiffed and old-hat formula new-wave and hair metal had run its course and the majors were eager for some new genre to manipulate into utter banality. It's said over and over, but Sonic Youth's leap up to major-label Geffen (DGC) was a coup of massive proportions for both the label and subsequent bands towed in their wake. It wasn't Sonic Youth's impact that caused this shift so much as the band to which they most famously gave a hand-up, Nirvana. The multi-platinum success of Nevermind cleared the way for a ransacking of indie-culture across the board. And it wasn't just obviously pop-ready bands that got the nod - even sludge-meisters the Melvins had a stretch of three (really good) albums released on Atlantic Records in the mid-90s before the obvious iron-curtain of limited cultural appeal came crashing down.

Enter that dog. A more pedigreed band almost hasn't existed in indie-rock before or since - main singer/writer Anna Waronker, daughter of producer/Warner Brothers head, Lenny Waronker; sisters Rachel and Petra Haden daughters of jazz legend Charlie Haden. And releasing their debut 7" single on an indie-label in 1993, they were quickly the subject of major label interest and subsequently signed to the aforementioned DGC for their self-titled debut.

I debated which of their albums to focus on here, having been mostly familiar with their 1997 swan-song, Retreat from the Sun, but undoubtedly it's 1995's Totally Crushed Out! that looms largest in their catalogue, and for good reason.

All Music's review of that dog. refers to them as producing the best music "Liz Phair never made," and the comparisons aren't entirely off base for the sound. What that dog. had that Phair didn't was a larger sense of pop-melody. Amongst the buzzing, fuzzy mid-90s indie-rock guitars is a harmony that is inescapable - not only in the singing of Waronker and the Hadens, but in the songs themselves. "Silently" has the bass driven sound that is typical of a lot of indie-rock of this era, but has the gorgeous vocal pairings throughout not only the verse but the chorus as well. I could listen to that dog. for years and never get enough of the singing. At times it acts as dissonance to the surrounding music, soothing against the abrasive curl of the guitars. At other moments, it lifts some distinctly soft and pretty music into the stratosphere as on songs like "Holidays" and the almost Pavement-esque "She Doesn't Know How." Closing song "Rockstar" expands the slower format some of their songs take to its maximum extreme, stretching to nearly eight minutes and droning out the album in a wash of feedback and an oddly placed, but endearing, synthetic drum and noise loop that winds things up. The lyrics on the album don't go too deep (unlike the ones on the subsequent Retreat from the Sun which are much more personal) and this leaves the buzzsaw nature of some of the songs intact - not forcing the listener to have to dig through heaviness to get to the pop goodness.

There are songs on this record that in an alternate universe (and isn't that always the excuse) would've been radio-ready hits. The aforementioned "Silently" is especially ready for airplay, but even with a major label behind them, it wasn't that dog.'s time or place in mainstream. Why?

Women artists or women fronted bands were done a great disservice by the 'Year(s) of the Woman' media-narratives about women in music that followed events like Alanis Morrisette's complete domination of album sales figures for that decade. Listeners started seeing women artists as a 'genre' in itself in a way that male artists have never and will never be perceived. Whether that had anything to do with a perception of female artists and the possibility that they were 'cashing in' on the 'trend,' I don't know. It's a common complaint when bands emerge a moment after the fact with a sound that they've obviously been honing for some time, only to be labeled as opportunists by listeners who have 'heard it before.' Creating music that stands the test of time (or the test of the cash register) is at times as much about being in the right place at the right time as it is about actual chops. Ask the members of Big Star about that and I'm sure they'd agree. Sadly, that dog.'s place in the larger indie-rock narrative, along with similarly talented and woefully misplaced artists like Jennifer Trynin, Velocity Girl and pretty much anything Kim Deal did outside of the Pixies, is slowly being lost to the mists of time. In talking about this record, I'm hoping to ease that just a little bit.

Rating: E(xceptional)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge for Yourself:

that dog. - Silently

that dog. - She Doesn't Know How

that dog. - Holidays

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