Somehow I've never heard Dogstar before. I know the name because I'm a film guy and I'm set for a runthrough of Keanu Reeves's First Thirty films for a forthcoming zine. Of course, I knew that he also moonlights as the bass player in Dogstar. It's merely that I haven't actually heard their music before, even though this is their third album, arriving a heck of a long time after its predecessors, which came out in 1996 and 2000. What I found out immediately in opener Blonde is that they play a very pleasant form of alternative rock, so pleasant that I wondered about where the boundary between rock and alt rock truly is. What side of that arbitrary line are they on?
Now, I don't really care, beyond wanting to slap a vaguely appropriate label into the detail section at the top of my review and to get a grip on where they're coming from. I guess they're alternative enough to count, but only just. Bret Domrose's guitar is just a little bit jangly and his vocal is just a little bit edgy, but only so far as to compare to U2 and Tom Petty and I mean Jeff Lynne produced Tom Petty rather than rockier early stuff. They don't even reach Pearl Jam degrees of alternative early on, let alone the Melvins or the Swans.
The first song that really felt alternative was Overhang, starting with Reeves's bass intro that's an excellent imitation of Peter Hook's. However, while there's definitely plenty of Joy Division in this song, right down to the guitar feedback, it's perkier in the chorus than anything Ian Curtis sang. It still plays unusually dark for this album, though, which is as optimistically cheerful as Reeves tends to be in interviews. The only other edgy moments arrive late in Breach, the closer, which plays with a grungier feel throughout and an unusually harsh backdrop behind certain sections.
Unfortunately, those two songs aswide, the adjectives that come to mind all sound like left handed compliments. This music is nice music, pleasant music, inoffensive music. Yeah, sounds awful, right? Well, the most important thing here is that it isn't. Sure, it's not remotely challenging music but it sounds good and it feels like it has substance and meaning behind it. It's not surface music, even if it's nice, pleasant and inoffensive. It's also well worth repeat listens, which nice music tends not to be because we forget it as soon as it ends. This stays, whether it's due to the melodies, the grooves or the hooks.
And, again unlike most nice music, those do vary across tracks, which find identities of their own to distinguish them. There's a harmonica on Dillon Street that works especially well when Domrose's guitar starts to wail behind it. There's a neat middle eastern flavour to the midsection on Lust, the result I think of a synthesised sitar rather than a real one, but effective nonetheless. Sleep is most overt in its plumbing of early U2 for its vibe. It could be a cover, even though it isn't.
The other song that seems like it ought to be a cover is Lily, because it plays like a pop song in rock clothing. I even found myself thinking about who might have sung the original with its completely different filter and it's broad enough that two of the names I came up with are Leonard Cohen and Cyndi Lauper, maybe the former handling the verses and handing over to the latter for choruses. I can't fail to mention Tom Petty there too, but Domrose channels him on much of the album, which he clearly doesn't Cohen and Lauper. Again, it's an original song.
The result is that I suddenly feel the urge to check out those earlier Dogstar albums, which I never had a yen to do before, even as a fan of Keanu Reeves's films. It wasn't that I don't buy into actors also being musicians, because so many pop musicians whose music I can't stand have become oddly impressive actors. It wasn't that I thought they were some real world attempt to create Bill & Ted's music. I just assumed they played alternative rock in an American style and it wasn't likely to be for me. Now I know that they play alternative rock in an American style but I enjoy it greatly. Even if it counts as nice, pleasant and inoffensive.