To disappear at the peak of one’s powers is a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll.
Rarer still? To come back and pick up right where you left off.
The L.A.-based pop-rockers in That Dog accomplished the former back in 1997, when they disbanded just a few months after releasing their excellent third album, Retreat from the Sun. An impeccable package of alt-rock guitars, sumptuous harmonies, lovely string sections and indelible melodies, Retreat was a noticeable step up from the band’s 1995 album Totally Crushed Out!, which improved upon their 1993 self-titled debut.
Now, 22(!) years later, That Dog’s fourth album is finally here. It’s cheekily called Old LP, and it’s too early to say whether or not it’s better than Retreat from the Sun. But it definitely picks up where That Dog left off, delivering 11 pop-rock songs that are chunky in some places, lush in others and consistently resistant to settling into a tired pop-rock formula.
Case in point: “Just the Way,” the second track on the album, starts off clunky and abrasive with a cello adding heft to a staccato guitar riff as frontwoman Anna Waronker scowls through a set of sarcastic lyrics. After 30 seconds, the song’s rhythm shifts and some pretty “aaahh” vocals lighten the vibe just before a noisy, pedal-to-the-metal chorus. Or there’s “Drip Drops,” where That Dog drops the rock ‘n’ roll pretense altogether, instead setting a jaunty tune about our volatile hearts against a playful arrangement of upright bass, cello and violin and an instrumental section that veers toward Eastern sounds. It’s the kind of thing you’ll hear from very few contemporary rock bands, but That Dog make it sound easy.
That’s impressive, especially given the fact that the band’s original violinist, Petra Haden, decided not to return after the hiatus. She was responsible for much of That Dog’s symphonic tendencies back in the old days, and now, Waronker is credited with the “orchestrations” on Old LP. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, keeping that distinctive element of That Dog’s sound instead of letting it leave with Haden was the right one.
Don’t be mistaken, though: That Dog is not all string sections and idiosyncrasy. The band still excels at perfect pop-rock songs, as evidenced by lead single “If You Just Didn’t Do It,” a propulsive crunch-bomb with a luxurious bridge that sounds the most like ’90s That Dog of anything on Old LP. Elsewhere, “When We Were Young” seamlessly blends jangling guitar, a rubbery bass line and heaping helpings of vocal harmonies into something airy and beautiful, while “Least I Could Do” sports an instantly familiar chord progression and a melancholic hopefulness that sounds readymade for some middling rom-com movie soundtrack. “We’ve come too far,” Waronker sings as the pre-chorus begins to crescendo, “just to run from the hardest parts.”
It would be a mistake to end this review without crediting Waronker’s band-mates. Rachel Haden plays bass and supplies some significant portion of That Dog’s indispensable vocal harmonies, while drummer Tony Maxwell is more than just a timekeeper, adding unconventional percussion to songs like “Your Machine” and “Least I Could Do.” Both are busy on the album’s title track, a sweet and stately slice of marching band-meets-baroque pop. “I hate that there’s no choice that I can’t hear your voice,” Waronker and Haden sing in the run-up to the song’s goosebumpy chorus, “unless it’s on an old LP.” The song is dedicated to Rachel and Petra Haden’s father, jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who died in 2014. But it’s comforting to know that we can no longer sing those same words about That Dog. They were—and are—a band that offers a unique voice within their field, and it’s wonderful to have them back.