At the beginning of 2008, San Francisco knew about the Dodos. Eleven months later, a lot more of the world does. This is largely due to Visiter (Frenchkiss), the group's vibrant second album. Mojo, NME, Pitchfork, and a few dozen other musical arbiters have joined a chorus of praise for the 14-song collection decked out in kid-drawing sleeve art. Mention Led Zeppelin's III (Atlantic, 1970) and Physical Graffiti (Swan Song, 1975) here, cite the influence of West African syncopation there, and you have the ingredients of a typical rave for vocalist-guitarist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber. But the appeal and the rewards of Visiter transcend such reference points, tapping into something individually instinctive and collaboratively intuitive. It's there in the spirit of Krober's rhythms, a spirit which has nothing to do with the contrivances of the current indie Afrobeat vogue. It's there in Long's vocal melodies, which possess a rare, casually natural aplomb. It's there in the way they work together.
"It's a really slow process," Long says when asked about the sing-your-life quality of his tenor vocals. "Something has to sit with me for a really long time. I'll happen on a rhythm or melody and take it with me wherever I go. It's a practice."
Sequestered in his bedroom for much of the last month because of mono, Long has been writing new tunes in between the occasional trip to the corner store or walk around the block. "I have this [unfinished] song stuck in my head it's worked its way in and I don't like it," he says. "But I'll probably love it eventually and it'll become my favorite song." While many critics might think that Robert and Jimmy or John and Paul are the songwriters Long aspires to match when he croons to a girl ("Jodi," "Ashley") or renders masculine foibles ("Men," "Beards," "Fools"), that isn't necessarily the case. He's just as likely to strive for the effect of a less canonical duo: Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. "I'll know something is good because it reminds me of OMD," he enthuses. "It sounds like home."
The Dodos have recorded both their albums Visiter and 2006's self-released Beware of the Maniacs in Portland, Ore., with John Askew. That producer's past studio experience with the Northwest's plethora of indie and punk duos informs the surprising scope and dynamics of his work with the Dodos. While labels like K and Kill Rock Stars and groups such as Beat Happening and the Spinanes have revealed the merits of a two-piece approach, the Dodos build upon that exploration, concocting a sound that verges on epic without ever becoming muddled. Long views the group's initial formation as a matter of economic practicality as much as aesthetic tactics and, indeed, a third member, Joe Haener, has recently joined the group.
For much of this year, Long and Kroeber have been touring. "It gets to the point where you're playing and performing and it's all about muscle memory," Long says. The repetition of life on the road, of playing the same songs over and over, has something to do with that feeling. But Long and Kroeber's music is physical it gets down into the veins and bones and heart. It's simple, really. The Dodos move you. (Johnny Ray Huston)
The Dodos play with Kelley Stoltz Thurs/6, 8 p.m., at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. (415) 474-0365.