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Defying Darwin: On 'Individ,' The Dodos Celebrate Resilience, Despite All Odds 

Wednesday, Jan 28 2015
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Go ahead, reach up and take hold of the low-hanging fruit: extinction. Get it out of your system. Done? Good. The dodo is extinct, yes, but The Dodos are still here — you have to give them that. If you give them nothing else, give them that. They're still here.

In fact, if you've been around the Bay Area for a while, it may not have escaped your attention that The Dodos have been still here for what's beginning to seem like a long time, releasing excellent albums roughly once every other year. Their sixth, Individ, comes out this week — and, like Carrier before it, and No Color before that, and so on back to 2008's Visiter, chances are good that it will be greeted with a small rash of press anticipating that this one will be The Dodos' breakout album, the one that finally catapults Meric Long and Logan Kroeber into the Indie-Rock Big Time Which Definitely Still Exists.

Long and Kroeber aren't holding their breath.

"The word 'individ' signifies resilience to me," Long, the duo's guitarist and singer, says on a sunny January afternoon on a patio in the Mission. "We were trying to think of a word to capture that theme, which is prevalent in the record. I kept going back to the idea of a wart — it grows, and you hack it off or freeze it, and then it grows back. It's annoying but it's resilient. But obviously we didn't want to call the record The Wart."

Kroeber, a percussionist who makes a partial drum kit sound like an unusually coordinated construction crew, agrees, warily. "We're not the mastermind marketers of our music, just the makers," he says. "We're not good at 'look at us' tactics. We're satisfied being ourselves. And the wart is the perfect signifier of that. It's there, whether or not you notice it." He pauses and looks at Long. "I didn't expect you to bust out the wart today, though."

Individ is pretty obviously the wiser title — their marketing savvy goes that far, at least — but there's something very apt about the theme of appearing and returning with impervious regularity, of learning to draw strength and self-possession from it rather than insecurity. Indeed, there's no particular hook to the new album, no high-profile collaborators (as with Neko Case on No Color) or conceptual paring back (as with the solemn Carrier, immediately on the heels of which the duo began recording Individ). It's not a radical step forward, or backward, for that matter — just a logical, ideally rich and rewarding journey deeper into the territory they've spent 10 years mapping out.

But that territory can be difficult to describe on a large scale. The Dodos' songs have a tendency to feel much less intimate and striking and dark as wholes, as remembered experiences, than they do while you're listening to them; their moment-to-moment intensity dissipates the farther out you zoom. For those who aren't about to catalog each smaller passage and impose a narrative on their course (now it sounds like screwed-and-chopped insurgent country; now it sounds like a mariachi band getting rained on; now it sounds like Animal Collective in a knife fight with Wilco), it's easier to collapse the whole thing into one simple, agreeable, generally unchanging aggregate of folky, acoustic indie-pop.

"I think we probably are writing the same song over and over again," says Long. "But as you write the same song, and you're in the weeds, all these other things open up. And it may look fantastic from where we're standing, but it probably sounds [to most people] like the same old 2007 indie-pop." At a different point, Kroeber picks this thread up: "We're so in the weeds of creating that sometimes our bigger picture — our career arc, the story we want to tell — is secondary to the stuff around us that we can discover musically."

In conversation, Long and Kroeber follow one another's cues almost without effort, often returning to points or metaphors from much earlier. (Other images they used during our chat to describe their musical output include a sea anemone, designer psychedelic drugs, Puxsutawney Phil the groundhog, a bag of Legos gathered over 10 years, and this one scene in Backdraft.) It's a pleasing mirror of their rapport on stage and on record, which is hard to imagine functioning any more efficiently: Their songs often sound like at least twice as many people are playing them, not so much because of their volume as because of the density of ideas in them, the number of moving parts that sometimes take the entire song to resolve into a pattern.

This is, of course, in large part what makes their music either overwhelming or pleasant and harmless, depending on whether you listen intently or passively. Individ doesn't do much to bridge that disparity; if anything, it challenges it all the more. If you tune in only when it makes a play for your attention, you may notice primarily that part of this song sounds like part of that one; the same goes with the album's lyrical mannerisms, which lend a vaguely menacing edge to even the prettiest moments. (One such moment, a peaceful air that sounds like a moonlit night on a foreign planet, is cast under a repeated refrain: "Darkness was overhead.") From within the album, though, these echoes and overlaps feel like experimental revelations, not oversights: proof that the ideas in Dodos songs have a powerful magnetic attraction to one another, that no harmony between them is accidental.

"We're lucky enough to have a core group of fans that have come down the rabbit hole with us, that see the variation and the progress," says Kroeber. "Different people latch on for different reasons, but sometimes I feel like we're writing music for other musicians. Like for someone who's trying to play guitar along with Meric while listening to the record and is like, 'What the fuck is he doing?' Whereas someone who hears the greater melodic arc is just like, 'Oh, this is nice.'"

Still, it feels most often as though The Dodos are writing for The Dodos. Another way to put it would be that for 10 years Long and Kroeber and their various collaborators have been asking themselves and each other the same question, scouting the rabbit hole in search of different ways to answer it. And tonally, it sounds like the urgency of that question has begun to diminish, along with the acuteness of the commercial expectations that once accompanied it. "One thing I realized while making [Individ] is that we should, and want to, play to our fans," Long says. "Instead of trying to rope in the new person with some new thing, we have a sense of why we have fans, so let's make those people happy. And in turn we end up making ourselves pretty happy too."

"It's also stubbornness, though," he adds, ever the rare bird that's still here, flourishing in its own way against evolutionary logic. "The smart thing for us to do would probably be to change, to evolve musically. What we're doing definitely doesn't feel like the smart thing to be doing, but whatever it is that keeps us doing it, we obey."

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Daniel Levin Becker

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