'Dr. Dog' a Philly band with '60s influence makes another house call at Mr. Smalls

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Dr. Dog is one of those bands that exists in a kind of limbo between being popular and obscure. The Philadelphia group has garnered some critical acclaim, but nothing too lavish. And it's had a break or two, but nothing life-changing.

"We've never had a song or a review or anything that pushed us prematurely into people's consciousness," says bassist/singer/songwriter Toby Leaman. "We're just choogling away, going brick by brick."

'Dr. Dog'

With: The Head and the Heart

Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.

When: 9 tonight.

Tickets: $18-$20. 1-866-468-3401.

The game plan for Dr. Dog has been to reach fans by coming to their towns, with an energetic live set and a textured sound that harks back to a certain beloved '60s rock band. Drawing inspiration from the Beatles, but also Guided by Voices and Pavement, the band formed in 1999 and debuted two years later with "The Psychedelic Swamp," a lo-fi home recording made in a "damp ruin of a flooded basement."

After developing a following in Philly and releasing a more proper debut, "Toothbrush," the band was invited to tour with Kentucky heavyweights My Morning Jacket.

"They gave us our first tour," the bassist says. "We had never toured before that. Scott [McMicken] and I toured in other bands, but not Dr. Dog. We got that tour and solidified who was in the band. We went out there and played our [butts] off. That was seven years ago, and we're still a band, and the reason we're still a band is that we take every advantage of what we're given. We toured as an opening band for about four years for tons of acts. When you're touring like that, when you're following a bus around in a dumb van, you get a sense of how it's done and what works, what kinds of different audiences you play to and what people like."

Despite having some '60s influences, being handy with harmonies and jams, and receiving offers from all types of festivals, Dr. Dog sensed from the outset that it didn't want to be nailed down to the jam-rock scene.

"That was something we avoided like the plague early on," Mr. Leaman says. "Now it really doesn't matter. I think we're firmly established. We can do those kind of [jam] festivals. Once you're seen as that kind of thing, people just turn off -- 'Oh, that's a jam band.' They can't get past that. It's not the kind of music I listen to or want to be a part of, but we'll do those festivals. When we were first coming up, it was like, if you're in that scene, that's it for you. You're not going to be considered a cool band. Not that we've ever been considered a cool band. My sense is that people think we're a bunch of dorks or something, a ragtag band that got lucky, but we work our butts off."

The band's 2007 album "We All Belong" took Dr. Dog to the next level, hitting the Heatseekers chart and making Rolling Stone's list of the Top 50 albums of that year. For the latest record, "Shame, Shame," the band was signed to Anti- and recorded for the first time with an outside producer, Rob Schnadf, up in Woodstock, N.Y., which would seem like a natural setting for the band.

"It was tough at first," the bassist says. "We finally found some middle ground and felt like we came up with some good stuff, then we took it to our studio and finished it up. It was definitely a different experience. We work better in the studio than we used to. Everyone's a much better player and I feel like with every record, everyone improves in every capacity."

One of the goals this time was to be more direct in the songwriting, which is evident on tracks such as "Shadow People," in the sonic vein of Flaming Lips, and "Station," with its Band-like harmonies.

"We just made the language real simple and clear, and not really leaving much to interpretation," the bassist says. "It wasn't like veiled or hidden. The meaning was pretty much out there in the songs. That was different because you have to be sure that's what you want the song to be about. When you write something more hidden, it's left to interpretation and people can get different meanings out of it."

Just about any review of "Shame, Shame" you click on will make reference to Dr. Dog being Beatlesque, which is a mixed blessing for the band.

"I think it's a little tired," Mr. Leaman says. "I think it's an easy way to write off what we're doing. You're talking about the best rock band ever. On one hand, it's like, we don't really sound like them. There are certain similarities in what we're doing and the way we try to craft songs, but it's not like you're going to confuse their songs for one of our songs. We're not going to try to sound like them, with fake English accents. You're a musician," he adds, "and there's 60, 70 years of pop music that came before you, you'd be foolish not to take advantage of some of the things that work."

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-2576; @scottmervis_pg.


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