Review Summary: “The Swamp Is Old, The Swamp Is New” – Yeah that sounds about right.
In preparation for this review, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. More soul-searching than I’d like to admit. Countless nights staring out my window watching the moths dance around my porch light as the sound of lo-fi crooning filled my room. The strange sounds of Toothbrush became incorporated into my routine for summer nights. After an almost dizzying number of plays, I finally feel comfortable giving my opinion of Dr. Dog’s debut album. The culmination of hours of listening and probing has led to this Earth-shattering realization: “Eh, it’s pretty good.”
I know that’s a bit half-baked considering how much time I’ve spent listening to this record, but you have to understand that this is Dr. Dog we’re talking about. Much like the swamp, the group tends not to do very much different. Sure, there’ll be a bubbling on the surface from time to time, but other than that, it’s the same yesterday as it is today, and it’ll probably stay the same tomorrow (albeit a bit shallower).
What Toothbrush does offer is ten nuggets of wonderfully-catchy lo-fi goodness. Songs like “Mystery To Me” and “Adeline” showcase the group’s more straightforward songwriting chops that would come to define the group with releases like Easy Beat and We All Belong. “Adeline” in particular hearkens back to early rock n’ roll love songs, with some distortion added on top for good measure of course. However, Dr. Dog do showcase a bit of their strange side on this album, probably more so here than on any of their other LPs. “The ABCs” sees the band channeling Daniel Johnston instead of their usual Beatles/Band/Beach Boys pastiche. One final positive to note on Toothbrush is the fairly dark tone throughout the album, which is only bolstered by the rough sound quality. Compared to the sunshiny polish of their later work, Toothbrush definitely has more bite than your average Dr. Dog record.
That said, the band’s weaknesses still show quite clearly on this album, especially in the songwriting category. While serviceable, very few lyrics will leave a lasting impression on the listener. On “Jealous Man,” one of the weaker songs here, you’ll find a very basic early-R&B tune with not much going on lyrically. Another hurdle listeners may need to overcome is the vocals, which can be a bit jarring at times. While I’m all but accustomed to the shrill shrieks of “Say Ahhh,” the distorted ‘OLDERs’ of “I Can’t Fly,” and the strange vocal effects utilized on “Swamp Livin’,” I can definitely see how the vocals can be an immediate turnoff for some.
With all this in mind, we’re left with an okay debut album from a band many agree would go on to do better. However, I’m not one of those people. In fact, I think this is by and large one of their best releases. If this album was just the first eight tracks, it’d be enjoyable and nothing more. But then out of the blue, two of my favorite Dr. Dog songs come in to sweep me off my feet. Okay, maybe “County Line” and “Heaven” aren’t particularly groundbreaking or revolutionary as far as songs go, but I can’t help it. I love these tunes. It could be the state I usually listen to them in (half-awake curled up in the comforter), but I really think these last two tracks are just wonderful.
More so than any Dr. Dog recording since, Toothbrush feels the most human, the most flawed. It’s soothing in a weird way, sort of like a deranged indie-rock lullaby. While not particularly original, its simplicity is what draws me in even further. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back to this album: the fact that under all that swamp, there actually was a little something special to discover.