For all the permutations of acoustic roots music the experimental neo-folk movement has produced, the style's gravitation toward wispy, soft-rock redux can leave a listener feeling a bit challenged in terms of musical muscle. Not so with the partnership forged between guitarist and singer Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber in their exploratory psych-folk duo the Dodos. Though their stripped-down mosaic of country-blues finger-picking and strange studio alchemy has plenty of delicate moments, the pair's urgent, porch-stomp delivery gives the music a potent wallop rarely heard from acoustic artists.
While growing up in Lafayette, Long played guitar with various rock and metal bands before his approach underwent a dramatic change at college in Southern California. Besides exploring ethnomusicology during his studies (specifically West African drumming and Balinese gamelan), a 2002 Los Angeles gig opening for noted Virginia folksinger Paul Curreri exposed him to the world of intricate finger-picking. "There's definitely a certain moment in my guitar playing history where I freaked out over Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson," Long recalls. "When I heard those guys, I literally stopped playing shows and holed up in my room for hours trying to figure out those songs."
Returning to the Bay Area with his newly honed skills, the guitarist garnered notice around town under the moniker Dodo Bird in 2005. His self-released EP of the same name the following year showed off a warm singing voice and gift for melody. Long could easily have cultivated the growing interest in his work, but continuing as a one-man show ran counter to his vision. "The whole purpose of my playing out in San Francisco was to find somebody who would be into making this band," he explains. "I didn't want to be a singer-songwriter playing in coffee shops."
The guitarist discovered the missing piece to his puzzle when a former roommate brought Kroeber to a show. Mutual interest led to an invitation to jam, where the two found common ground in Long's spare rhythmic concept. Ditching the monster kit he'd played with Santa Cruz metal band Entragian, the drummer pared down his instruments to the bare essentials of a group of floor toms augmented by a tambourine strapped to his foot. "I focus on a rhythm singularly," he says. "I'll find the pattern and dedicate everything to it without worrying about riding the high-hat or hitting the backbeat."
The duo's 2006 debut, Beware of the Maniacs, was recorded only months after they started playing together, yet it revealed the remarkable symbiotic interplay they had already developed. Small wonder, then, that sharpening material during months of intensive touring for their latest effort, Visiter (their first for indie imprint Frenchkiss), entwined Kroeber's propulsive tom rolls and metronomic rimshot clatter even deeper with Long's expanding instrumental vocabulary. Mesmerizing fingerwork continues to mark some of the Dodos' most compelling songs, as on the tender melancholy of "Ashley" or the gradually building existential rumination of dramatic album closer "God?" However, it's the way the drummer's insistent pulse meshes with the Dodos' newly expanded palette — the ringing toy piano that helps power "Red and Purple," the ambling banjo of scene-setting opener "Walking," or the strummed mandolin on "Winter" — that gives Visiter such irresistible momentum.
The songs that come closest to matching the Dodos' live kinetic energy are the album's most memorable. "Fools" and epic ode "Jody" swirl with echo-laden vocals and moments of slashing guitar that recall Zeppelin's more raucous acoustic tracks or even the feral trashcan blues of Doo Rag. They may not be playing metal, but onstage Long and Kroeber express themselves with a sweaty, neck-snapping physicality. "It's not heaviness; it's intensity," Kroeber enthuses. "I play harder with Meric than I've ever played in my life. I'm killing myself out there every night, and it's awesome."