One of power pop’s dichotomies is that some of the bands who pursue its ideals most enthusiastically (especially those who take the Beatles as their north star) are too formal and stiff, too retro and derivative, to be much good at it. The tougher end of Merseybeat may ultimately underpin the genre , but to overlook the many other infusions that went into its evolution is a stylistic sandtrap. The best power pop bands aren’t copycats, they’re modern apostles of an enduring concept.
The Washington DC group Dot Dash, who have come to play as idealized and energized a form of power pop as one could imagine, didn’t grow up on the ’60s; their musical touchstones are in the new wave era: so more the Jam than the Who, Haircut 100 rather than the Kinks. Their iconic labels are more likely to be Postcard, Rough Trade and Sarah than Immediate, Pye or Deram. While they may have started out in thrall to Wire, from whom they took their name, their progress has been towards crystalline tunefulness. (In a related bit of tea-leaf reading, singer-guitarist-songwriter Terry Banks and bass player Hunter Bennett were previously in a band named for the Undertones’ “Julie Ocean.”)
More enthusiastic than accomplished, spark>flame>ember>ash set the band (a four-piece with lead guitarist Bill Crandall) down on map coordinates somewhere between the Jam, Wire, R.E.M. and the Chameleons. The brief songs (only two reach the three-minute mark) are decent enough, but Banks’ singing is unconfident and pitchy (on “I’m Going Home” he all but gives up trying), and the album lacks a clear focal point.
Branden Funkhouser’s three-dimensional production on Winter Garden Light handily clarifies things, moving the quartet closer to the American side of new wave power pop (think Wire Train and Translator) with healthy dollops of the chiming guitar sound that used to be characterized as “jangle.” The songs are longer and more developed, with clever touches to color in a more consistent sound. Most importantly, the singing — doubled, dampened with reverb and sweetly supported by background harmonies — is a hundred times better. Crandall adds atmospheric touches throughout, and drummer Danny Ingram does a lot more than just keep time. Picks: “Shouting in the Rain,” “La-La Land” and “Writing on the Wall.”
Half-Remembered Dream is more of the same, with a tad more refinement and ambition. (One sizable exception: The aggressive and angular “A Light in the Distance” straddles Magazine and Wire.) Throughout, the playing and singing are first-rate, delightful electric pop of no discernible era. The speeding “(Here’s to) The Ghosts of the Past” kicks things off in stirring fashion, finishing breathless music with a breathy, intimate vocal. “Do-Re-Mi” lays down a moody bed that ends quickly; when the song restarts, it’s in ringing, melodic overdrive. Ending the album on a positive note, “The Sound of Shells” leans hard toward Wire Train with a great result. If the band has a weak spot, it’s the lyrics, which don’t really say much and too often fall back on clichés and corny constructions like “It’s getting near the 11th hour / Let’s taste the sweet and skip the sour” and “Don’t carry the weight of the world.”
The addition of lead guitarist Steve Hansgen just in time to record Earthquakes & Tidal Waves kicked Dot Dash up a couple of loud rock notches. Producing the album at his Fidelitorium studio in North Carolina, Mitch Easter ushered the quartet into surging, fuzzy, no-space-unfilled terrain without any loss of its melodic charm. (Generation X and A Boy Named Goo come to mind as inexact but indicative comparisons.) Bennett’s bass booms with new depth and power; Ingram follows suit, adding exciting fills at every possible turn. (A couple of tracks even begin with drum intros.) Banks drives the songs with sizzling power chords; Hansgen elbows his way into the arrangements a little too enthusiastically, but the short songs forestall the danger of extended riffery. A few songs (“Tatters,” “Sleep Sleep”) revert to mildness, but the overall impact is genially ferocious fun.
Working with Fidelitorium staff producer Missy Thangs, Dot Dash went astray with Searchlights, a long (15 songs) hodgepodge of garage rock that begins with a raucous ode to “Dumb Entertainment” and bears only passing resemblance to the band’s prior albums. Vocals are sunk in the blurry mix while Hansgen’s overzealous retro solos push their way to the front, all of which obscures the still-melodic songwriting. The piano-pounding six-minute “Fading Out” sort of succeeds on its own terms, and “Holly Garland” draws close to power pop, but the sloppy harmonica break in “Daddy Long Legs” and the jarring inclusion of two ineffective ballads (“Wishing Star” and the swingin’ “In the End”) that are slower and gentler than anything the band has ever previously done only add to the confusion.
Wisely streamlined to a trio, Dot Dash righted the ship in a big way with Proto Retro. Fresh and invigorating, sparkling with genial invention, holding to PP basics but sidestepping its obvious references and clichés, the album is timeless in the best possible sense. In keeping with the title, sprinkles of everything from Hollies harmonies to chiming layers of Roddy Frame guitar (and a dose of punky jizz in the finale, which borrows the two-note guitar solo concept from the Buzzcocks) enliven a dozen concise tunes. (Total running time: 31:44.) Even the lyrics are significantly improved, with intriguing subject matter that, among other things, addresses the passing of time (“World’s Last Payphone”). In “Run & Duck for Cover,” Banks offers, “Time as an abstract / Snaps back like elastic.” Then there’s this oddball scenario in “TV/Radio”: “Living above a bodega / I was snorting the remains of Mr. Alan Vega / They were throwing dice, I was throwing shade / You don’t have to make it up if you‘ve got it made.” Taking on a totally different topic, “Unfair Weather” tweaks Americans who use Britishisms: “Don’t call it a jumper, you know it’s a sweater” and “Stop saying cheers (no one says that here).” An unreserved winner.
But it’s not as wonderful as Madman in the Rain. Same producer (Geoff Sanoff), same lineup, more sterling results. Blended acoustic and electric strumming, a spot of keyboards here and there, Banks’ winning tenor and harmonies, inventive bass lines, deft drumming and abundant tunefulness add up to a pristine marvel of economical power pop. The lyrics playfully allude to other bands and records (careful reference-spotters will find the Jesus and Mary Chain, Cars, Devo, Everything but the Girl, Talking Heads, Beatles, Knack — there may well be others), but there’s nothing in the music (save the subtle New Order riff used in “Airwaves”) to impugn the band’s originality. Alternately silly (the driving new wavey “Tense & Nervous” offers the amusing catchphrase “You gotta have a heart to have a heart attack”), serious (from the Cure-like “Saints/Pharaohs”: “I dove down, plumbed the deaths, I was running out of breath”) and both (“I’m not afraid of dying but I’m afraid of being dead”), the lyrics are enigmatically engaging. But ultimately it’s the spirited sound, the joyous playing and the filigreed production that makes Madman in the Rain so memorable.