Don’t Be a Stranger, the Moondoggies’ 2008 album, invites us in that title to get to know them. It’s a call to gather, to find strength in numbers, and it had a sound to match. From gospel harmonies to extended guitar assaults, the guys ran the rock ‘n’ roll gamut and came out the other end with a record as current as it was rooted in tradition.
Tidelands, that album’s follow-up, takes on a distinctly different feel. It’s shorter for one — 10 songs covering 42 minutes — but it is also more about taking a step away. Where the last record was about all of us bracing together, this album is full of images of water, ones that are both calming and isolating, and the whole record takes on the soundtrack to a time spent laying low, waiting for the storm to blow over.
Perhaps as a result of this feeling of refuge, the band doesn’t sound nearly as restless on this record, but that doesn’t stop them from crafting 10 solid songs. They tend to stay in their most comfortable wheelhouse — bluesy roots rock — but, as before, their incredible vocal harmonies carry the day. On the title track, the band backs up singer Kevin Murphy beautifully over the refrain, rising and falling like the tide all the way through. “What Took So Long,” the album’s longest track, actually sees the boys both hitting their highest notes on the chorus and, during the verses, hanging a ragged edge onto their voices that works to whip the song into a controlled frenzy.
The band also smartly inject flourishes to subtly shift from song to song. “Uncertain” has a quiet blue-light shuffle, that breaks up the muscled rock of the first few songs. “Empress of the North” has all the dusty twang of a solid country tune, and “Down the Well” twists their rock sound into something moodier and more expansive than the other, tighter songs.
Still, as direct as these songs can be, there’s a feeling that maybe the boys are holding back too much. After the unpredictable genre shifting of Don’t Be A Stranger, it’s hard not to feel like they might be playing it a bit safe on Tidelands. Sure, these guys can harmonize with the likes of Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes — you know, those more commercial players — and it’s nice to hear a more rock-oriented band taking on that kind of singing. But at this point, we know how well they can sing, we know they have the blues-rock down, so it’d be nice to see them keep pushing that. Since they don’t here, you’re certainly pleased with the set they put forth, but you’re rarely surprised by it.