Review Summary: Arbitrary and unimportant world transformation aside, this is perfect. Broad, honest and ambitious, Dog Problems is a stunning listen from start to finish.
The labeling of albums as classic ordinarily entails a good deal of hindsight, which somewhat skews the numerical ratings system used by most publications because it means disproportionately few recent records are ever afforded such a status. The hesitancy to brand something so new with such a prestigious mark stems partly from the fear of getting it wrong – it takes guts to slide an album into the wall of fame that holds names like Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, however much you enjoy a record. Of course, the less cynical point of view is that the classic status can only be awarded later down the line because a necessary factor in its earning of that descriptor is that it must have an effect – an impact – on what happens later. Put simply, this is a fallacy, since it implies that the perfect album, once we have pushed all possible boundaries of musical creativity, will not be capable of a ‘5’ rating. With this in mind, I present to you a modern classic of the indie-pop genre, The Format’s 2006 LP Dog Problems.
Somewhere beneath its insane catchiness and quirky intelligence, Dog Problems is able to weave an intangible thread of heartfelt emotion and uplifting melodies through every single note and beat crammed between the fleeting opener Matches and the frankly euphoric closer If Work Permits. The two songs which form a bracket around this consistent set of songs showcase the two perfectly balanced sides of a sound so effective and addictive it almost manages to remove you from reality entirely: subtlety, and energy. The former takes its shape in musical nuances like the synth line hidden behind the chorus of Oceans, a mid-album stand-out, as well as in the lyrical work, which is superb throughout. Although Nate Ruess’ words are rarely revolutionary, they are always relatable, and the theme of break-ups which runs throughout the record is dealt with in a fashion which seems personal, fresh and somehow cheerful at every listen. Even Time Bomb, whose subject matter passes, in a touching glimpse, over self-harm, manages to maintain its optimistic feel.
As for the other half of The Format’s format, their energy is obvious throughout. Even less dramatic numbers like Snails seem to move with a pace and desperation that the Arctic Monkeys would be proud of. And when Dog Problems gets moving, it gets moving properly. The Compromise, a clever swipe at Atlantic Records’ attempts to smoothen the edges of their sound, slides through verses to an anthemic ironic refrain of ‘meet me in the middle / well come on let’s make up a dance / and we’ll agree to call it the compromise’. And the fantastic last track, If Work Permits, sets off with character but turns absolutely frantic after the chorus; Ruess’ emotive vocals atop distorted guitars and pulsing drums build gradually throughout the second verse and the last chorus is shouted, passionately. Earlier in the song, though, that same chorus had made for arguably the album’s most poignant moment, crooned vulnerably over a sparse, misery-stricken piano. This is the genius of Dog Problems: the subtlety and the energy are not split between tracks, or ever really separable. Just energy, and you’re shouting about nothing. Just emotion and subtlety, and you’re going to come out depressed. But both together – like The Format manage on this record – gives you a bit of fight, and a hell of a good time while you figure it out.
Sam Means, the other half of the duo, is credited with the use of other instruments the band had lying around, which makes a lot of sense as you listen, with guest appearances like a quirky trumpet on Inches And Falling, but the liner notes list about a hundred other credits. The title track is a perfect example of the album’s employment of pretty much everything under the sun including gang vocals from a choir and an entire orchestra. All of these elements combine to form a pristine, dramatic and incredibly enjoyable song which rises, falls, crescendos and slips through about 5 different transitions, all of which are effortless and contribute hugely to the impact of witty lyrics which fit so perfectly on a first listen and stand up even better to further scrutiny. At one point, Ruess begins to spell, cheerleader style, and gets as far as B-E-C-C-A before he realises that he’s spelling ‘because’ wrong and his thoughts have slipped back onto his presumed ex-girlfriend. Quiet sections melt into fast-paced hooks through tempo changes and the use of backing vocals enhances the right sections at the right time. The song runs at just over 4 minutes but you’d swear it had lasted for half an hour and you still loved every damn second of it.
Another admirable thing about Dog Problems is that, for all its bombast at certain points, it knows when to be restrained and civil. Twelve incarnations of the title-track would doubtlessly grate, with its emotional and musical rollercoaster and the sheer magnitude of the songwriting. So tracks like Dead End and I’m Actual, whilst no less catchy than their more ambitious counterparts, and no less deserving of praise, strip the components down to a guitar, a piano, percussion, a bass and occasionally something made of brass. Funnily enough, reading that list back, it still seems fairly high-maintenance, but they are all used so sparingly and effectively that it seems a positively stripped performance. And when, like on If Work Permits, they strip it down to a single instrument, you are stopped in your tracks and genuinely affected by the heartfelt nature of Ruess’ youthful but world-weary lyricism and delivery. Handclaps and gang vocals, circus-style keyboards and a-capella intros - they're all here, but only where they need to be.
The Format broke up in February 2008, and the time that they were together was turbulent to say the least, not in terms of in-band fighting, but disputes with record labels and personal issues meant Dog Problems is, as their final release, a culmination of difficult feelings, pent-up tension and creative freedom, all rolled into one ball. It built so tremendously on the other half of their full-length back catalogue, Interventions & Lullabies, and provides an effortless, catchy journey into the workings of Nate Ruess and Sam Means’ minds and lives. There’s not a track of filler to choose from 12. On stand-out number 12, She Doesn’t Get it, Ruess quips ‘I claim New Religion’s my song / she doesn’t get it / it’s all before she was born’. The Format take 60s and 70s pop, pepper it with indie and the very occasional sprinkling of folk and consistently surprise, enthrall and entertain their audience, and there isn’t one single
moment where you don’t get it. Accessibility in music often means sacrificing artistic merit, but Dog Problems sweeps you through 45 minutes of brilliantly easy listening with every ounce of its musical integrity in tact. And when If Work Permits fades out, it’s like those 45 minutes never existed, like time just stopped. And then you just have to press play again.