On “Don’t Try and Hide It” off The Dodos’ latest, frontman Meric Long sings, “What were you thinking / Writing on the rooftops / Waiting for something or maybe someone?” Whatever The Dodos were thinking when they made “No Color,” they were onto something—they have created a dreamscape of an album that is impossible to tune out. The album features frenetic drumming, ethereal guitar picking, and—to top it off—the lovely singer Neko Case; the Bay Area trio has once again put out an album that is strange and full of wonder, leaving listeners with an impression of a world only seen in dreams.
There is an aspect of insanity to The Dodos, especially when their out-of-control musicianship collides with offbeat lyrics. “In my head, it’s only laughter,” croons Long on “Good,” and this sort of deranged mentality pervades the album. Despite originating as a duo, the band managed to make their songs densely layered experimental works. Their first two albums, “Beware of the Maniacs” and “Visiter” are similar to “No Color” in instrumentation, but are much less produced, giving them a rougher feel. The band’s 2009 release, “Time to Die,” took The Dodos in a new direction, adding producer Phil Ek and a third member, vibraphonist Keaton Snyder. The album bore more than a passing resemblance to more established indie acts like The Shins and Fleet Foxes—an unsurprising similarity, given that Ek has worked with both. Despite the addition of a well-established producer, “Time to Die” was a significantly weaker album than the preceding two, perhaps because what made The Dodos special was their unpolished sound and spontaneity, elements that definitely suffered under Ek’s supervision. Thankfully, on “No Color” the band has reclaimed their former ethos, adding fancier production to the inventive instrumentation and dreamy singing that fans have come to adore.
In crafting their otherworldly songs, The Dodos rely heavily on imagery and sounds associated with dreams. The imagery of “Black Night,” the abstract “Going Under” and the tellingly titled “Sleep” all serve to lyrically represent the odd beauty of their innovative instrumentation and offbeat song structures. Long most explicitly invokes this theme on the Hamlet-referencing “Sleep,” in which he repeats “I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot dream”—a statement disproven by the sheer imagination and creativity of the album.
The themes of dreams and sleep are strikingly evoked by the soaring, beautiful vocals and jerky instrumentation which are consistent throughout the album. Album opener, “Black Night,” is simultaneously abrasive and restrained; loud drumming and crazy strumming dominate the track, but Long’s smooth vocals lend a contrasting laid-back vibe to the song. The disjunction between his relaxed delivery and the frantic drums serves to disorient the listener, and the track bleeds into the excellent “Going Under,” a cheerful, poppy track buoyed by peaceful arpeggios and Neko Case’s backing vocals.
Though their sound is consistent throughout the album, the band does manage to vary slight details from time to time, preventing “No Color” from descending into colorless monotony. “Companions” features softer percussion, and uses Spanish guitar work and synths to fill the void. The song reveals The Dodos’ softer side, while “Sleep” ironically drives forward like a machine and culminates in a climactic build.
Indeed, much of “No Color” is meant to be taken in as a whole, unbroken experience in which The Dodos fully envelop the listener in the strangeness of their sound and world. The tracks easily fade into each other and as a result are hard to differentiate; “No Color” seems built as a complete, personal dream sequence, and the world they craft is stunningly evocative. Long sums it up nicely on the opening track: “Black night / Blackness / How I wanted you … All to myself.”
The Dodos invite the listener to drop all worldly cares for 40 minutes and join them on a journey through the depths of the mind. The album’s quiet melodies and jumpy instrumentation are a fanciful portal into the realm of dreams—a place where even an album whose title suggests dreariness can dazzle.