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The Moondoggies - Don’t Be A Stranger

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Artist: The Moondoggies

Album: Don’t Be A Stranger

Label: Hardly Art

Review date: Jan. 22, 2009

At face value, the Moondoggies aren’t the most innovative band in the world. It’s music you might expect a band called the Moondoggies to play: straight-up Americana rock and roll. Innovation in music, however, is tricky to define. While more experimental artists often push the boundaries and expectations of fans and critics alike, a band like the Moondoggies attempts an altogether different kind of innovation – the search for fresh meaning in the traditional rock and roll song.

If traditional rock and roll is a path well worn, it takes ambition to distinguish a new band from the past. After one spin through Don’t Be A Stranger, it might be easy to write the Moondoggies off as upstarts attempting to do the Band better than the Band. Besides, with all the recent Northwest competition showing off CSN harmonies – Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, etc. – haven’t we heard enough musical nostalgia for one year?

Repeated listens make it harder to dismiss. When music feels this good, to question its simplicity is to remove oneself from the listening experience – which, considering Don’t Be A Stranger‘s most engaging moments, would be a real shame.

Top dog Kevin Murphy began writing these rock songs after an inspirational trip to Alaska, where he secluded himself in an attic with a 4-track and an acoustic guitar. Part Tom Waits, part Ry Cooder, the writing style borrows from past heroes, yet its originality is found in its subtlety. For instance, on the traditional chain-gang clap-along "Jesus on the Mainline," Murphy transforms the final verse and declares: I ain’t never seen him . The switch stays true to its Gospel original – the paired feelings of hope and disappointment.

Centerpiece tune “Changin’” exemplifies Murphy and his band’s search for something new amid familiar song-structures. The track feels both natural and exploratory with walls of sound, fierce drums, and just enough cracks and crevices for the rays of three-part country harmonies to seep through. Murphy’s guitar style, sprinkled across several visceral moments, sounds more akin to Thurston Moore and Mission of Burma than to Gov’t Mule. And it makes sense that the Moondoggies started off with shaky roots in garage rock; along with a healthy southern-blues aesthetic, the record carries a certain reckless abandon.

At a meaty 13 tracks, the record’s length is an issue. It’s ambitious to leave an hour of uncut material on a debut, but the overall effect can be taxing, if not downright tiring. Still, by the end, tracks like “Night and Day” warrant the decision to let the tape bleed. Beginning in a quiet bedroom before erupting into a piano parlor, over eight minutes time, the track is purposefully untidy. Or take the haunting and emotionally precise “Undertaker.” The album wouldn’t be the same without the graceful, drifting harmonies: “I’ll do whatever it takes to set my heart free / Nothing’s going to change how you dream.”

Not exactly Walt Whitman there, but the Moondoggies somehow make those trite lines feel fresh, a necessary alchemy if you want to stand out among the No Depression crowd. And as far as 2008 sleepers go, this album’s near the top of the pile. Don’t Be A Stranger is good advice, indeed.

By Derek Barber

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