After twenty-two years, it’s here: Old LP, the fourth full-length from legendary guitar pop group that dog., and the first since 1997’s Retreat From the Sun. In some ways, it finds the three members of that dog.—guitarist/vocalist Anna Waronker, bassist/vocalist Rachel Haden, and drummer Tony Maxwell—picking up where they left off. Across its eleven songs, there are interlocking vocal melodies, hooks-on-hooks, and Waronker’s signature guitar tuning. There’s the unshakeable tension between sweetness and dissonance, between dark and light, between life-or-death seriousness and tongue-in-cheek wordplay. But with two decades of life experience behind them, the dynamics of that dog. are now notably more stark and sophisticated, layered and multi-dimensional.
The idea to regroup for a new album was inspired by the energy of their 2011-2012 reunion shows, as the trio rediscovered the joy of playing together and observed the fervent reactions of their fans. “I always felt that dog. in my bones, no matter how long we were disbanded for,” reflects Haden. “I always knew one day we’d play together again.” The reunion shows were the spark they needed to start recording again, but from there, it was a slow and deliberate process. “By the end of 2012 we had four songs done,” recalls Waronker. “In 2013, we had a few more. We needed time to let it grow into what it would become. Sometimes it’s hard to get there. Which is kind of the theme of the album.”
Old LP was made on stolen time, moments snuck here and there when Maxwell would visit Los Angeles from New York, where he had established himself as a creative television executive. “If I had a group of songs ready that everyone felt comfortable with, on one of Tony’s trips here, he’d steal a night away, and we would go rehearse it,” says Waronker. “And then the next trip, he’d steal another night away, and we’d go record all of it in one night.”
It was an arduous, years-long process, but the time and space afforded the group more leniency to slowly rebuild their band. “It forced us to really analyze the key components of our sound, figure out where it made sense to nod to the past and where we wanted to experiment with new musical textures and ideas,” Maxwell says. “It was challenging and exciting finding a balance between honoring our past and pushing into new territory.”
And while a number of these new songs sound perfectly at home in the that dog. discography, there is experimentation in new directions, too. For starters, Old LP finds Waronker composing and arranging orchestral instrumentation for the band for the first time, additions that are all over the album: violin, cello, piano, upright bass, horns, woodwinds, many of which are performed by friends and family.
Lyrically, Waronker challenged herself to get back into a headspace specific to that dog.: “We were very young when the band was first happening,” she recalls. “In a way, I was reporting on being a 20 year old girl, documenting my life experiences. Now I’m checking back in as a 47 year old. When I jumped back into writing a that dog. album, I thought, how do I do this? The girl who wrote those songs then, where would she be now? She was me, so I had to be me again, which I haven’t done for a while. I’ve done so much writing for other people and other projects. It was interesting to pry myself open the way I do when I’m writing in that dog. It was just so matter-of-fact.”
On Old LP, there are explosive songs about navigating conflict, growing up, and becoming yourself. “If You Just Didn’t Do It” is an anthemic pop cut in which she meditates on the idea of not wanting to shame someone who has been called out, but also facing reality: “We all make mistakes, but sometimes you’ve gotta look at what you did,” she explains. Similarly, “Just the Way” is about being screwed over by a person who is trying to “box you in.”
The slow-building “Your Machine” is a confrontation of the struggles of working as a songwriter. “Throw a dime in a wishing well, and wish I live to tell,” sings Waronker on its chorus, repeating that last line over ominous backing vocals that give way to pointillist harpsichord, cello and violin.” It was one of the first written for this new era of that dog.. “Bird on a Wire” similarly unpacks creative challenges, cutting straight to an emotional core. Waronker and Haden’s voices weave around each other, making such introspection sound celebratory.
Old LP’s stunning title track is an ode to loss, music and memory, written by Waronker after a memorial for Haden’s father, Charlie Haden. “At the end of the memorial they played one of his songs,” Waronker recalls. “It was beautiful and it sounded like he was right there. With music, you can put something on and close your eyes and feel a presence. You can feel that life in a different way.”
“I guess I hate the fact that you’re not coming back… that I can’t hear your voice / unless it’s on an old LP,” sing Waronker and Haden, backed by a buoyant 25-piece orchestral ensemble. The final arrangement was the result of a particularly inspiring meeting with longtime friend and mentor of Waronker’s, Randy Newman, who provided guidance on the orchestration.
The album title is a nod to this and more. As Maxwell puts it: “The music freely acknowledges our past but is delivered from an older, wiser perspective. Also, it speaks to the album format we love and grew up on.” For Haden, it is even more elemental. “Connection and family and music is the harmony I want to be in. That’s what that dog. is to me.”www.facebook.com/ThatDog/