In terms of the number of songs and overall duration, Searchlights, out now via TheBeautifulMusic.com, is the longest Dot Dash album yet. This one, the fifth from the D.C.-area band, is also the loudest. To not mention that would be silly; the record's got kick, you know?
If previously on the earlier records Dot Dash sounded like The Jam, this time out they sound like another power trio entirely: Husker Du. At least in spots, I guess. The group -- drummer Danny Ingram, bassist Hunter Bennett, guitarist Steve Hansgen, and singer-guitarist Terry Banks -- have simultaneously managed to have moved the whole Dot Dash sound forward while retaining enough of the traces of the earlier stuff to please long-time fans. Significantly, guitarist Steve Hansgen now sounds perfectly at home in the band, the Minor Threat ace's axe even more an integral part of the Dot Dash effect than it perhaps was on 2015's Earthquakes and Tidal Waves where he was the "new kid" in the group.
With a bit of wit, Banks kicks things off with "Dumb Entertainment" which reminded this listener of nothing so much as "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin, complete with harDCore wiz Steve Hansgen's blistering Page-does-Chuck Berry-style solo. The band -- maybe more so than ever before -- sound loose and at ease here, even with the added volume. Up next is the roar of "Lonely Serenade" complete with what sounds suspiciously like a Billy Idol-style audible snarl from one time St. Christopher member Terry Banks. Things settle in by the time we get to the title track, all big riffs wrapped around the usual Banks twists and hooks -- American indie amped up as never before.
At times on Searchlights Dot Dash make the kind of beefy tune-age once favored by Superchunk, or the kind of hook-heavy college rock pioneered by The Smithereens a generation earlier, though there's still that hint of indie here thanks to this frontman's past in a few other bands. Still, in a measure of his growing range as group leader, it's worth noting that Banks sounds equally at ease on the lyrical "Wishing Star" as he does on the more fiery "The Infintite". On the positively hard rock-ish "Dance on Broken Glass", the band try their collective hand at a more mainstream sound, Banks even recalling Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople a tiny bit in his vocal delivery. "Woke Up Saturday Night" packs in the sort of metallic k.o. found on the the best bits of the criminally underrated Don't Tell A Soul. If, like The Replacements on that 1989 disc, the boys in Dot Dash are extending their reach this time out -- and taking a few risks along the way -- they are doing so on the backs of some of Banks' best hooks. On tracks like "Holly Garland" and "Daddy Long Legs" his songwriting seems to have hit a tuneful peak even if the volume has gone up around him and his melodies. Without a doubt, Hansgen, bassist Bennett, and D.C. legend Ingram are all playing at full tilt in partnership with Banks, and every cut on Searchlights is one that could be taken off this record to showcase the myriad strengths of this act in a little 2- to 3-minute bite. It should be no surprise that the musicians have rarely sounded better on a Dot Dash album but it's also worth highlighting how the new styles on Searchlights suit Banks as a frontman this time out; who knew that the guy from The Saturday People would sound so at ease growling through big riff-rockers like these?
The highlight of this album for me was the riskiest number by far. At nearly 6 minutes, "Fading Out" is something new in the Dot Dash holster, a secret weapon of talents this band hadn't showcased yet. Combining bits from previous projects -- harDCore riffs from the "salad days" of both Hansgen and Ingram, for example -- of the members of the band, the cut is a blistering bit of channeled college rock fury that seems the equal of "You Can Live At Home", the final selection on Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987) by Husker Du. As Hunter anchors things on that bass, and Danny pounds his way out of through the noise around him, Terry and Steve provide some of the most interesting and varied guitar-work this band has so far put to tape. It's a long way back to "There And Back Again Lane", folks. As the music roars and things stay just one step on this side of chaos during the cut's extended outro, one can feel like you're hearing the next logical stage in this band's evolution. If the song is bracing and challenging, it's also a joyous celebration of tuneful cacophony, much like another Husker Du song, "Crystal". The track, downloadable for free up above, is both unlike so much of this group's back catalog and so wildly promising of what's going to be possible on future releases.
If so much of Searchlights seems so different from albums 1-4 from these D.C. cats, it's all sort of forgiven when the overall punch of the songs hits you. If the volume is up, so are the melodies and, like those Mac-penned hooks in any classic Superchunk number, the skills of Terry Banks at drafting a jaunty melody are still on display. Things are louder but Banks hasn't entirely abandoned his indie roots -- just imagine if The Smiths had made a whole album full of cuts like "London" and you'll get what I mean. If you've never seen this band in concert, this album is a pretty good representation of their live sound. As a whole, Searchlights works as a leap forward for these guys. You know how there's a classic rock album hidden amid the hard chords of Never Mind The Bollocks? That sort of blending of punk -- thanks to Hansgen and Ingram -- with alt-rock -- Banks and Bennett -- is brought to full fruition on Searchlights. That parts of this sound like Zeppelin, and the Pistols, and The Damned, and The Buzzcocks, shouldn't surprise anyone, should it? These 4 guys are bringing 4 lifetimes of performing experience (and deep music knowledge) to the project here and Searchlights sounds like nothing so much as a template for the next 5 Dot Dash albums. I don't think any act since Dag Nasty or Government Issue has so successfully bridged the worlds of punk and alt-rock. That the album is dedicated to the late, great John Stabb (Government Issue, Emma Peel [with Steve and Danny], History Repeated, etc.) makes perfect sense given this record's cocktail of harDCore traces and ferocious power pop.
[Photos: Glenn Griffith...just like the one inside the CD tray on this album! Thanks guys!]