Nothing confounds a critic so much as a favorite. There's no getting around the fact that we all have a few. Some artists just speak to you on a gut level, making them seem better than, in all likelihood, they actually are. No one is immune to the feeling. Everyone, serious critics included, can name off a creator (or creators, for than matter) who simply have their number, and there's not a whole lot of use in denying it. With all of that said, I now set out to impartially judge the newest offering from one of my very favorite bands, The Dodos.
Visiter, the duo's 2008 release, still strikes me as one of the most criminally over-looked releases of the last several years. Weighing in at fourteen tracks and just narrowly under an hour in length, that album was stuffed to the brim with rampant creativity, and limitless hooks. By comparison, their 2009 effort, Time to Die, feels a bit slight, nine tracks and forty-five minutes long, with many of the group's eccentricities scaled down, though not as absent as many have suggested. Anyone who would call No Color a rebound of sorts probably didn't give Die enough of a chance before shelving it for good, but there's no question that the band's fan base was desiring something a little more weird and wild this time.
The album opens up with lead single Black Night, a tune that instantly displays the band's preternatural abilities in the fields of rhythm and melody. As if in direct response to those who were put-off by his reduced importance in Time to Die, percussionist Logan Kroeber takes center-stage as the song begins, pounding away on his drums with furious militance. By comparison, frontman Meric Long's guitar part almost sounds meek, but the way that he playfully fits his lyrics into the song's almost non-existant sonic cracks is a joy to behold. It's all Dodos per usual, instantly and uncontrollably catchy, building and building before stopping right in its tracks, getting to work on follow-up track Going Under before you even know what hit you.
Going Under, along with the subsequent Good, is both blessed and cursed with one of the band's signature moves: The mid-song transition. Long and Kroeber have always been fans of squeezing multiple sections into one track's runtime, a tendency that gives their music a spontaneous, unpredictable allure, but also makes it difficult to readily distinguish one track from another. Shifting from the verses' gentle gallop, to the swooning romance of the chorus, and finally the thunderous intensity of the song's second half, there's no questioning the fact that Going Under is made out of good parts; just how well those various parts play along together is another discussion entirely. Visiter's fourteen tracks permitted the boys to fit in all of their ideas without ever feeling crammed. I suppose that there are worse things to fall victim to than having an abundance good material, but it does leave a few songs here feeling a bit faceless.
Since Time to Die, The Dodos have under-gone a few changes. Departed are short-time members Joe Haener and Keaton Snyder, as well as indie super-producer Phil Ek. Newly arriving is tour-mate and vocalist Neko Case, an addition that proves about one-forth as influential one might expect. Her most prominent moments are right in the album's center, serving as one half of the lovely harmonies that carry both Sleep and Don't Try to Hide It. The rest of the disc uses her vocals like most bands use their bassist: An extra little sound only discernible through close listening, and a trained ear. Consider it a lesson learned; having strayed away from what made them successful in the past, Long and Kroeber now know to split the spotlight equally between each other, and not let anyone else effect their sound too drastically. Case is a wonderful component of the songs in which she contributes, largely due to the fact that she's never offered the opportunity to over-power them.
Simply put, the song-crafting formula that The Dodos have created is a thing of wonder, as it allows both of the band's members that play as though the attention is all on them. Both Long and Kroeber are extraordinary at their respective instruments, a fact readily attested to by their whole discography, and bolstered by the fact that the two play together as though they came from the same womb. How else could Long's speedy string-picking and Kroeber's rat-a-tat drumming on album closer Don't Stop, combine to make a thing of such intricate beauty? Same goes for the half-rock, half-ballad, fully-realized When Will You Go, and the playful shuffle of Hunting Season. With a sound so enveloping and distinct, I can't imagine The Dodos ever releasing a sub-par LP, and this one is no exception. As speedy and addictive as it is studied and gorgeous, No Color is another rock-solid addition to The Dodos' canon, and though it's likely to be saddled with unflattering comparisons (even by me) to the knock-out that is Visiter, only a scrooge could deny that this is some really, really good stuff.