Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Earthquakes And Tidal Waves: My Review Of Album Number 4 From Dot Dash

What's most surprising about Earthquakes and Tidal Waves, album Number 4 from D.C.'s Dot Dash, and out in the near-future from TheBeautifulMusic.com, is that it's a hard record in spots. With all the attention that D.C. punk LEGENDS Danny Ingram (drums) and Steve Hansgen (guitar) have garnered lately with the superb D.C. hardcore documentary Salad Days (2014), you'd be forgiven for thinking that those 2 punks had somehow commandeered Good Ship Dot Dash and steered it in the direction of 1983, fellow one-time John Stabb band-mate Hunter Bennett (bass) hitching a ride as Terry Banks (vocals and guitar) was left at the dock.

That scenario would have been far too easy. Instead what's transpired here is downright remarkable, especially given the presence of legendary -- there's that word again! -- producer Mitch Easter at the helm this time out. Instead, what's happened is that Easter has found a way to marry the rough edges of the band's superb debut Spark>Flame>Ember>Ash (2011) with the sprightly tune-age of 2013's excellent Half-Remembered Dream on this new one. If anything, Earthquakes and Tidal Waves resembles nothing so much as Winter Garden Light with far catchier tunes.

And what about those 10 tunes?

"The Winter of Discontent", with Terry's growl about how he "kicked up a four-leaf clover", marries Hansgen's Diggle-like guitar lines with Bennett's supple bass playing and Ingram's inventiveness on the kit. Whoever's doing the backing vocals also deserves mention. As Hansgen lets loose, the song burrows its way into your head. Harder than "Hands of Time" it may very well be but it's every bit as tuneful.

"Flowers" is like some gem from a Nuggets-era box-set that starts with Bennett's bass and Banks' rough vocals. Ingram's drum beat here anchors the song in another era as the other players strut their stuff around him.

"Rainclouds", in some weird way, reminded me of late period Ramones stuff. It's not as fast but it's certainly as hook-filled. Terry runs through a litany of pop lyric tropes here in a sort of duel with Hansgen's wailing axe and the result is something that feels like a new direction for Dot Dash.

"Satellite (Far Out)", a song I'm pretty sure I heard the band do live already, is the cousin to "11th Hour" from Half-Remembered Dream (2013), but the edges are rougher here even as the melody is just as sharp and strong.

There's a real Byrds-y mood on "Tatters" as the tempo slows a bit. Immensely tuneful, this is one of the best Banks melodies on record so far. Whether due to Easter's influence or not, there's a palpable Peter Buck vibe on the guitar hooks behind Banks' vocals on the verses. "Tatters" is Terry Banks' Go-Betweens moment even if the music nears R.E.M. territory all around him. The lilting melody and the bookish mood of the song all seemed to remind me of nothing so much as a Robert Forster-penned song being sung by the late Grant McLennan.

Steve Hansgen and Danny Ingram were in a lot of punk bands, including Emma Peel with Government Issue's John Stabb, and Hunter Bennett was in Weatherhead with John Stabb, so it makes sense that the opening of "Walls Closing In" is gloriously unabashed harDCore. While that places it outside the rest of the Dot Dash oeuvre, the chorus -- the big hook of the song -- is pure Terry Banks. Somehow, it all works. It sounds like a mess on paper but it positively soars on the record.

"Transperent Disguise", already a near-staple of Dot Dash live shows, is a crunchy blast of Buzzcocks-style energy and melody. Catchy in all the right ways, it's the obvious progression from "Countdown" a few years ago.

"Thru the Dark" is this album's "Fiction Section" while "Semaphore" belongs to Ingram's drums. The cut marries Steve Hansgen's near-Skids-inspired guitar hook and weds it with Bennett's hard bass-lines in the service of Danny's pounding on the skins. Almost a throwback to the way he drummed when he was in Swervedriver or Strange Boutique, his playing here is exceptional and a new element in the Dot Dash playbook.

"Sleep, Sleep" closes Earthquakes and Tidal Waves (2015) on a slower note and Banks and the other 3 members of Dot Dash modulate their sound a bit to fit the muted style. Backwards effects add to the mood of this one, as does the faint keyboard line. There's a hook here but "Sleep, Sleep" is more moody than obviously catchy.

Leave it to a producer like Mitch Easter to nearly confound expectations. I think based on the fact that he was going to be producing Dot Dash Long-Player Number 4, and stuff like "(Here's To) The Ghosts of The Past" on their last album, a few people probably expected this record to be, essentially, Terry Banks singing "Pretty Persuasion", or something. Instead, Easter has overseen what appears to be a big step forward in the music of this four-some. If Half-Remembered Dream was the perfection of what can now be called The Dot Dash Sound, then Earthquakes and Tidal Waves (2015) marks a move in a slightly harder direction.

And was there any doubt that that was going to happen with Minor Threat legend -- again with that word? -- Steve Hansgen in the band now? The first album recorded without founding guitarist Bill Crandall, Earthquakes and Tidal Waves reveals a rougher edge to the hooks this time out. Never once forsaking tunefulness, Banks' compositions are expanded and flushed out in new ways. Those of you expecting chiming guitars like on a Let's Active record are in for a pleasant surprise.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Dot Dash didn't take the easy way out here. They have, in some way, purposefully pushed themselves a bit while still delivering an incredibly tuneful record. I mean, look, you've only got to listen to "Walls Closing In" to understand this line-up of Dot Dash perfectly; all harDCore until Banks glides in with a sublime vocal hook. The success of that marriage of styles is probably down to what Terry Banks has learned in the bands he was in before Dot Dash, as well as the effect of Mitch Easter in the producer's chair this time out.

More than ever, Dot Dash now sound like a D.C. band. Some of you outside this area might read that and think the cats have gone all punk, bowing down to the mighty legacy of Hansgen, perhaps. But, no, what that really means is that finally, with Earthquakes and Tidal Waves (2015), this area has got a record that blends that real, huge harDCore sound with the lilting melodicism of the best early records on Slumberland Records before they left the College Park 'hood.

I don't know if Dot Dash intended to do all that but to me, a fan of all that stuff, and a huge fan of this band and these 4 people, that's what I hear.

And it's glorious. Congratulations cats, you keep getting better!

Earthquakes and Tidal Waves (2015) is out now via TheBeautifulMusic.com.

Follow Dot Dash on their official Facebook page.

(All pics in this review taken by me or my wife in late 2014.)