Dope Body are several different things on their sophomore album and Drag City debut, Natural History, few of which make themselves explicitly stated. The Baltimore band of bruisers is either an extremely creatively deranged nu-metal band (wait, don’t leave!), or a warped satire of said genre and its uber-masculine contemporaries. Bring the lens out a bit and it’s apparent that they’re of a class with sludge merchants like Pissed Jeans, descendents of the almighty Jesus Lizard, kindred spirits with the anarchic alt-metal of Mike Patton, all while occasionally sounding like Battles had that band absorbed a majority share of influence from drummer John Stanier’s former band Helmet rather than Ian Williams’ Don Caballero.
In any case, Natural History marks a streamlining of the sound introduced on last year’s Nupping, an album that, while latching on to familiar touchstones of sounds of alternative music past, was still firmly entrenched in the weirdo-embracing culture surrounding Baltimore. It’s a very smart move. The songs here spend less time switching from circular riff to noise blast and back, and instead carry themselves through sheer muscular force, expertly provided by bassist John Jones (exemplified on opener “Shook”‘s monolithic two-note lurch). The elements consistently doing battle on top of the bludgeoning laid down by Jones and drummer David Jacober are provided by the bizarro guitar work of Zachary Utz, and the strained yell of vocalist Andrew Laumann. Utilizing an army of effects pedals in addition to an Apple laptop, Utz wrenches neck-snapping riffs and chirpy, seemilngly machine-generated lead parts from his six string with equal aplomb. The tradition of weird frontmen in bands such as this is well established, one that Laumann fits himself into nicely. Far from being the menacing David Yow type, or the Matt Korvette (Pissed Jeans) portrait of unambitious, self-doubting modern man, Laumann comes off like the proud jock. The kind of guy who goes to the grocery store directly after the gym still coated in his own sweat and stink, his chest puffed out in hopes that other notice his physical efforts, but still possesses a lingering sense of insecurity, made clear whenever Laumann’s voice cracks at the end of a line.
This all leads to the question that is ultimately Natural History‘s biggest sticking point: how seriously are we supposed to take Dope Body, and at what level of sincerity are they actually working? As stated before, this is music that draws several parallels to the sheer physical force of those downtuned nu-metal slingers (minus, of course, the cringe-worthy lyrical content) and other genres that have had little contact with anything approaching independent rock in decades. Often, the line between satire and simply taking the piss gets trod, where affection for the force of this music seems to take backseat to obnoxiously poking fun at it for the benefit of “in-the-know” types. On “Beat,” Laumann kicks things off by braying “You talking to me? I didn’t think so,” and then follows that up with threats involving tooth loss and “get[ting] beat.” It comes of as an all-too-obvious jab at the prototypical “tough guy” image. Meanwhile, the “do what you want to do, see what you want to see” chant and bendy riffs of “Road Dog” seem to be delivered with tongue poking through cheek. “I’m just talking shit/I’m just pissing off/I’m just tuning out,” intones Laumann before the band drops out for the bridge. Indeed.
Nupping proved it, and Natural History amplifies the point that Dope Body are a completely unimpeachable unit from a musical standpoint: able to fit in with contemporaries while still sounding undoubtedly like themselves, carrying on the proud outsider-rock tradition of their hometown. A needlessly dour turn is not being suggested, but for as many of their knobs that are functioning at top capacity, the one operating their LOL-factor is finally looking like it needs re-evaluation, because frankly, they’re better than the attitude they occasionally project.