Album Review

Moondoggies "Tidelands"

Brian Ahnmark
Of the myriad ways to address the dark thoughts that riddle the mind, the Moondoggies have developed a constructive approach: Write songs about them, then neutralize the downcast themes with boisterous three-part harmonies.

An odd sensation results. It’s what hope sounds like.

The Seattle-based Moondoggies – lead vocalist/guitarist Kevin Murphy, drummer Carl Dahlen, keyboardist Caleb Quick and bassist Robert Terreberry – return with a solid sophomore full-length, Tidelands. The band has noticeably honed the precision of its songwriting since Don’t Be A Stranger, the Moondoggies’ 2008 debut.

Tidelands is an album full of questions, the kinds of questions that have no answers. But there is no sense of wallowing beneath the weight of the great unknown; rather, there’s a feeling of celebration, of embracing the uncertainty.

This cohesive batch of songs draws from a vivid, expansive palette of styles. For a band regularly (and somewhat awkwardly) categorized as Americana, it’s pleasantly jarring to take in Tidelands with its recipe of rock, balladry, gospel and soul.

A superb trio of tunes opens the record. “It’s a Shame, It’s a Pity” commences with Murphy’s plaintive voice and a lonely, distant electric guitar, before the full band bounds into three-part harmony glory. “Don’t you wish you’d be surprised when you become what you despise?” Murphy asks atop a simple two-chord progression, the accompaniment appropriately giving way to the final bitter confession: “In your head, it’s just a lie.”

The title track follows, a sneering sludge groove dominated by Murphy’s ragged-throat vocal. “What Took So Long” is the unequivocal album highlight, riding Dahlen’s insistent swing beat through a breathless romp of tasty hooks, stop-starts and dynamic shifts. Quick’s organ takes on a spiritual resonance as Terreberry’s lead bass carries the melody through the twisted arrangement. And the dramatic apex – a howled harmony of the refrain, “What took so long?” – doesn’t lament the question so much as rejoice, as though a festering wound has finally healed.

Tidelands suffers from the occasional lull, particularly as the overarching mid-tempo rhythms bleed together. At times, the ear begs for something crunchy and uptempo. Then again, that wouldn’t necessarily fit on this particular record, and the earnest delivery of it all does set up some pleasant surprises. Take the leering violin of “Lead Me On,” provided by Seth Warren of the Maldives; the grinding riff and snarling organ of “Down the Well”; the triumphant vocal rounds that buoy “We Can’t All Be Blessed” as the song achingly disintegrates.

A pair of lovely acoustic ballads pace the proceedings. “Empress of the North” arrives at the midpoint, a chilling ode to loss composed by Murphy in his adopted second home of Alaska. Closing track “A Lot of People On My Mind” is numbingly direct, just Murphy on guitar and voice. Despite the lonely sentiment and delivery, a hopeful note pervades and ultimately prevails: “There’s a lot of people on my mind / I think about them all the time / And I know that they’re near me.” It’s a calming, confident hymnal that provides closure – and finally, an answer.