If the success of last year's Visiter made the Dodos' rise to worldwide attention seem inevitable, the modest San Francisco outfit certainly didn't see it that way. "Visiter was our first record on a label," says singer-guitarist Meric Long, who recruited drummer Logan Kroeber to form the Dodos around his solo work. "Before that, nobody really heard our stuff. Some of the tactics on the record were on the basis that no one was actually going to listen to it."
That methodology included placing six- and seven-minute dirges next to fleeting interludes, creating a strange marriage of meditative psych-folk and plucky acoustic pop. "Having these short and long songs was a way to break up the record," Long explains. "We had a lot of ideas, and I was trying to keep from developing every little riff into a [full] song."
Released by the New York label Frenchkiss, Visiter garnered raves for its homespun, outsider-art vibe and the urgent tangles of Long's finger-picked acoustic guitar and Kroeber's pared-down, polyrhythmic drumming. Developed over the 2005 EP Dodo Bird under Long's name and the 2006 album Beware of the Maniacs under the name Dodo Bird, the Dodos' chattering sound was perfected on Visiter. The two-piece formula was even spiked in places with a toy piano, a vibraphone, backing vocals from songstress Laura Gibson, and the odd clang of a trash can.
The Dodos have followed up Visiter with Time to Die, which comes out in CD form Sept. 15 (it was released digitally last month). While Long's smoothly nasal singing and the band's musical intricacies remain, the album sands down the previous one's rougher edges. Even given the Dodos' expansion to a trio with the addition of vibraphonist Keaton Snyder, Time to Die is simpler and more straightforward. Credit the guiding hand of producer Phil Ek, famous for helming albums by the Shins, Band of Horses, and Built to Spill.
"Something like Visiter wouldn't work with Phil," Long admits. "And we were so sick of those songs. We needed something different. When we started writing Time to Die, we were all ready to shift the focus more on melody." He adds, "We wanted to make a more produced record."
The band got its wish, with impressive clarity to boot. Every sound stands crisply on its own, despite being tightly interwoven. Even the vibraphone, both a percussive and melodic force, doesn't overcrowd the field. Of course, it helps that Long's approach to guitar can be quite percussive, and Kroeber's breezy drumming — eschewing the bass drum altogether — often flirts with the melodies around it.
Long says he set out to write three- or four-minute pop songs for Time to Die, but they all wound up being a bit longer. That doesn't detract, however, from the jumpy appeal of standouts like "The Strums" and the lead single "Fables." As for the vibraphone, Long admits it doesn't have the best reputation in indie rock. "It's an uphill battle," he says, citing the instrument's use in the iconic NBC jingle. "But the actual, pure sound of it, taken out of its historical or commercial context, can be really cool."
He also observes that, despite the focus on a fuller and more pop-oriented sound, Time to Die is in some ways more bare-bones than Visiter. "The same three instruments are used on every song," Long explains. "All the bells and whistles, like the trash can and toy piano, started to feel really gimmicky. That was part of the charm of the band, but it loses its effect. I wanted to do away with that and just make interesting things happen between the three instruments."