Even if you didn’t know that Phil Ek produced Dodos’ third LP, Time to Die, you’d be able to detect about it something distinctly Shins-ian, Fleet Foxes-ian and Band of Horses-ian (all bands for which Ek produced albums). Meric Long’s voice has natural reverb, and his guitar lines sound like bells. Logan Kroeber’s drumming isn’t in the front of the mix like it was on 2008’s Visiter. And everything sounds brighter and more refined than the Dodos ever seemed capable of sounding.
That’s not to say becoming sonic kinfolk with Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses is a bad career move. Actually, it’s a great one. Time to Die just excises the shaggier aspects of Dodos musical mash — the windmill drumming, the busted-ass acoustic-guitar riffs and the muddied vocals — along with it the band’s defining characteristics and charm.
Where Dodos songs used to sort of fall apart at three and a half minutes, Time to Die’s tracks all bear the mark of studio polish. Long’s voice moves out front, shining brighter than the songs’ acoustic plucking and neutered drumming. Kroeber’s drumming, which used to be as important, if not more important, as the guitar in Dodos’ duo set-up, is now relegated to second-class citizen here, pacified into augmenting the songs, not providing their thrust.
The increased focus on Long’s voice has the negative effect of making his lyrics more intelligible, since they can be hit or miss with alarming frequency. There’s an excellent and delicate tale about wanting to avoid the world (“Fables”), but there is also a track about the vaguely evil practices of businesses (“This Is a Business”). Opening track “Small Deaths” is a poetic tome about dying piece by piece, but then there’s “Two Medicines,” a song that seems like it was written about Alice in Wonderland (or more likely The Matrix).
In addition to calming things down considerably, Time to Die sees Dodos expanding their band to three members to make room for — wait for it — a vibraphonist. And while at first that seems obtuse and ironic (like the folk-rock version of Aloha), Keaton Snyder’s vibraphone adds layers to songs that benefit from having the natural tones in the mix. On “Fables,” the album highlight, the vibraphone serves as a stand-in for a bass, adding counter rhythm to Kroeber’s spritely drumming (Kroeber is never better on Time to Die than on “Fables”). Vibraphone then becomes the foundation for the tumbling music on “Troll Nacht,” and provides the sauntering counter-melody on “The Strums.” It’ll be interesting to see if the vibraphone takes a bigger role on future Dodos records.
In some respects, Time to Die is Dodos’ sophomore slump but an album late. They make all the moves indie bands do when they’re moving on up; they got a big producer, dulled their edges to go for widescreen appeal, and finally picked a scene they could fit into with easy classification. Time to Die by itself isn’t a bad album, necessarily, but it’s not even close to the same level as Visiter and what made Dodos different to begin with. I hope that on their fourth album, these guys return to their roots.