"FATE" is the record Dr. Dog were destined to make, a timeless yet contemporary distillation of the band's open-armed, big-hearted sound taken to new heights of craft and creativity. Inventive, magnificently realized, and absolutely irresistible, the Park The Van Records release sees the Philadelphia-based quintet filtering the gamut of American popular music into its own idiosyncratic brand of blue-eyed, dilated-pupil soul. Songs like "Hang On" and "Uncovering the Old" delve deep into the mysteries of life and love, offering bittersweet and buoyant reflections into the very nature of our human condition. As ever, Dr. Dog makes magic from an enduring pop palette of intricate harmonies, shape-shifting melodies, and ramshackle audio ingenuity - all presented through the band's slightly skewed and utterly individualistic outlook.
As the title makes plain, "FATE" was fueled by la forza del destino. Dr. Dog allowed the winds of fortune to carry them towards making an album they came to see as a uniquely conceptual work, though they are careful to point out the amorphous nature of that notion.
"We realized pretty early on that the songs tied together," says the other half of the band's voice, singer/songwriter/bassist Toby Leaman. "We didn't really know how — and I'm still not completely sure — but we know they do."
"We didn't start the record with the idea of 'fate,'" McMicken explains. "It just became apparent to us at a point that it was already going on. It was happening and it was just a matter of us noticing. Once we got a good chunk of stuff down, it was apparent that something was going on, that these themes were just coming without our awareness of it. Then it became really exciting to say, wow, there's this aspect of fate that's governing this process as well as being the subject of it."
Songs such as "The Old Days" and the album-opening "The Breeze" touch on big picture truths like the inexorable passage of time, of taking inventory of one's current state through the prism of the past. The songs express wistful regret and thoughtful introspection, both in terms of subject matter as well as their classicist musical content.
"It takes this kind of muddled and fragmented path towards a very simple understanding of the present," McMicken says. "That comes in part from getting a little older and realizing that you've spent all this time crafting this imaginary sense of self. But the older you get, the more you realize that what you are, you've always been."
The confluence of matter and method, of songs grappling with the powers of destiny being driven by outside forces beyond the band's purview, proved invigorating, offering Dr. Dog both freedom and structure.
"It was really helpful to look at it thematically," Leaman explains, "because then we were able to look at the songs and go, 'Okay, this one isn't really relevant to the album.'"
"Being conceptual takes it out of our hands," McMicken says, "and that's very empowering. Ultimately you're still driving to the studio and doing it every day, but you've created this fantasy that there are these gigantic other factors which are outside of your control that are as relevant to the process as you are."
In some ways, the intangible relationship between fate and "FATE" links back to Dr. Dog's 2002 debut, "THE PSYCHEDELIC SWAMP," which was constructed around a narrative in which the band "translate" messages from a parallel universe into its own music.
From the band's birth in 2002, recording had always been rather loose and slightly homespun. 2004's "EASY BEAT" catapulted the combo to national — and then worldwide — attention and acclaim. Their increase in stature allowed them the opportunity for growth, exhibited by the increase in sonic scope found on 2006's "TAKERS AND LEAVERS" EP and its full-length follow-up, "WE ALL BELONG." The album's recording proved an often-laborious learning experience for the band, as they struggled with the complexities of crafting their organic, naturalistic pop via 24-track equipment. This time, Dr. Dog was better prepared for the work at hand and as such, the sessions flowed smoothly from the get-go.
"We knew how to work the equipment a lot better," says Leaman. "We all got a lot better at working fast, knowing how to mic stuff properly, getting the sounds we wanted faster than we used to. There was still a lot of guesswork, but it wasn't like on the last album, where we spent so much time figuring out the logistics of it."
To further relay the interwoven thematic content, Dr. Dog bonded "FATE" with the sound of one of the album's most frequent lyrical symbols, the train. A romantic, distinctly American metaphor, the railroad ties the songs together, spanning the many parallels in the process in which Dr. Dog were immersed. They viewed themselves as hard-working craftsmen and delighted in the homonymy of railroad and recorded tracks. Most significantly, it seemed an ideal physical manifestation of fate itself.
"We decided on the train as the best metaphor because it represents this thing in the distance," McMicken says, "moving towards you or moving away from you. Or it's right in your face, ever-present and forceful."
Forward-thinking but reflective, searching yet remarkably confident, "FATE" is the work of an extraordinary band operating full steam ahead. Perhaps it was inevitable. Dr. Dog has always trod its own analogous path, a band of outsiders from the start, now more than ever holding true to its own inimitable place in the universe.
"This band was started and built on the idea that we were the only band there was," McMicken says. "That gave us the freedom to be in complete control. You can start a band and say, 'In Dr. Dog World, up is down and blue is red.' Because who's gonna tell you you're wrong?"