“I feel like I’m in a totally new band right now,” says Dr. Dog guitarist/singer Scott McMicken. It’s a bold declaration considering he’s been co-fronting the beloved indie outfit for a decade-and-a-half, but it cuts straight to the heart of the intense and transformative experience behind the group’s brilliant new album, ‘Critical Equation.’ The most infectious and adventurous collection Dr. Dog has laid to tape yet, the record was born from a journey of doubt and discovery, a heavy, sometimes painful reckoning that ultimately brought the band closer together with more strength and clarity than ever before. Call it an existential awakening, call it a dark night of the soul, whatever it was, it fueled one of the most fertile creative periods in the group’s history and forced them to confront that timeless question: what do we really want?
“We’d been touring and making records for our entire adult lives, and I think we just needed to take a step back,” reflects bassist/singer Toby Leaman, who splits fronting and songwriting duties with McMicken. “It was important for all of us to figure out if we were actually doing what we wanted to be doing, or if we were just letting momentum carry us down this path we’d always been on.”
The path to ‘Critical Equation’ was an unusual one for the Philadelphia five-piece (McMicken, Leaman, guitarist Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, and drummer Eric Slick), and it stretches all the way back to 2014, when the band completed work on an album titled ‘Abandoned Mansion.’ Instead of releasing the record the following year as planned, they temporarily shelved it in favor of an opportunity to partner with the celebrated Pig Iron Theatre Company on a reimagining of ‘The Psychedelic Swamp,’ a long lost McMicken-Leaman collaboration that actually predated Dr. Dog’s debut album. The resulting theatrical/concert performance premiered at the Philly Fringe Festival, and the accompanying LP earned rave reviews, with NPR hailing it as “a concept album that wanders and sprawls to absorbing effect” and Under The Radar swooning for its “unmistakably sublime harmonies.” Despite representing something of a Rosetta Stone for Dr. Dog, the album also marked a major departure, with elaborate production and experimental arrangements that broke from the simpler, more emotionally direct studio sound they’d been gravitating towards over the years. Rather than the start of a new chapter, ‘The Psychedelic Swamp’ seemed to symbolize the closing of a circle, which made it an ideal catalyst for some serious soul searching.
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