Pine Dogs – A new band learning old tricks
The Pine Dogs were born 20 years too late.
If they were coming around in the mid-1970s, they’d probably be playing hockey arenas and outdoor festivals, hobnobbing with Linda Ronstadt and Peter Frampton. But it’s 1996 and the band has put out two CDs on their own. The Pine Dogs weren’t even invited to the last Woodstock. But they’re kicking butt at what they do.
What they do is take that 1970s granola-gobbling, semi-organic, country-rockin’ kind of pop and run it through a 1990s food mill, throwing out the garbage that accompanied the earlier era and distilling the good parts through punk’s do-it-yourself original-music mandate to create fresh sounds with great hooks, tight playing and insightful lyrics.
Of course, old war horses like the Eagles are still touring as shadows of their former selves, and there aren’t many radio stations willing to hang their million-dollar investments onto the Pine Dogs’ kind of music — if anyone could figure out what that is.
Some critics lump the band’s sound in with ’90s country, but that’s not really it. “It’s not that we’re denying any country influences, but I’d say we’re no more country than Steve Earle,” quips bassist Tom Fischer. “Okay, that’s not the best example. But we’re like a lot of bands that have been influenced by country but are still rock ‘n’ roll, like the Stones and Eagles were. It’s roots music.”
The Pine Dogs’ first CD, 1992’s Going Away Party, was produced by Lucinda Williams’ erstwhile guitar ace Gurf Morlix, although the results came out a little more sterile than one might have expected from the band’s live shows. Mighty Engines of Love, the Pine Dogs’ most recent disc, was produced by the band itself and captures that warmer sound. Singer-guitarist Jim Whitford’s playing comes to the fore — partly of necessity, as founding member and guitarist Don Vincent left the band a year ago, reducing the group to a four-piece (with Jim Celeste on drums).
In addition to little touches such as an almost Phil Spectoresque ballad (“Stop and Start Over”) and a rumble guitar workout (“Been on a Twister”), the new disc includes Whitford playing lap steel on “Marlboro Man”. He’s only been playing the instrument for a couple years, since buying a World War II-era National Pedal Steel for $50 at an antique store.
Gretchen Schulz, the band’s main vocalist, has an instrument that’s low and smoky (she frequently takes a lower part than Whitford when they’re singing together), and can hold her own doing Aretha Franklin covers during the band’s live shows. Schulz honed her talents singing straight-ahead jazz standards in the mid-’80s.
“I love that stuff, and spent a lot of time doing it,” she says, “although looking back I don’t think it was as good as I thought it was then.” Schulz usually performs in some variation of jeans and a cotton shirt — tending toward a deceptively simple elegance, a phrase that could be used to describe the Pine Dogs’ music as well.