Through basic deduction, it’s easy to see that Dollhouse, the seventh LP by Vancouver duo The Pack A.D., is an album that’s not afraid to be a little out of the box. If you scan the titles, you’ll see that they’re far from conventional—the first is called “Woke Up Weird,” which is a pretty forward statement; the second simply has a dollar sign for a name. Then there’s the cover. Singer/guitarist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller are slightly asynchronous with the pink, peppy background behind them—but at the same time, their bold presence makes the scene more intriguing. Such is the appeal of Dollhouse, which, at its best moments, gleams with creativity and grit. Admittedly, there are times where the band’s power falters and their brand of rock seems a bit too unsurprising—but despite that, it’s clear that when Black and Miller hit the mark, they really leave an impact.
The aforementioned “Woke Up Weird” is exactly the kind of spacey, enthralling intro you would want to serve as your portal into the world Black and Miller have conjured up. Although the song is built around a guitar riff rather than synths, it has the same sort of sci-fi vibe present in many a Gary Numan song in the ‘80s. (No wonder he’s depicted in the album art.) Enthralling harmonies create an atmosphere that’s both eerie and beautiful, while yelps and a pounding beat provide emphatic punctuation. Near the end of the song, an instrumental section adds to the intensity. If you’re listening to it on headphones, you’re in for a treat—the way the guitar’s roar bounces from ear to ear is stunning.
“$” is equally bold—social commentary served with a wink and a punch. At the start, the minimal guitars and percussion put the spotlight on Black’s voice, which embodies the passion of bands like The Black Keys but has an extra dash of acerbity. Black asserts herself as a force to be reckoned with, referring to someone as, “Hey, kid” and calling out “all these jerks circling me,” so it makes sense when the drumbeats get louder and the song turns into a rock explosion that will surely have crowds jumping up and down in concert. The track never gets too aggressive, though, because Black also dares to show off the soft side of her register, adding a few airy “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” to the mix.
Then comes the title track—the album’s mission statement and crown jewel. In the previous two songs, The Pack A.D. tossed their darts with pretty good aim, but in this one, they finally hit the bullseye. In the first few seconds, we’re introduced to the song’s central riff—a blockbuster riff, the kind that would play as Black and Miller speed away from a bank in a sportscar if they were to star in an action-packed heist film. Then Black begins to sing, changing up the number of syllables in each verse, working with the song’s structure but never being restrained by it, somehow sounding rough and sleek at the same time. The click-clack of the drumsticks and the ethereal backing vocals propel the track forward, making every repetition of “We live in a dollhouse” sound more menacing.
Next up is “Thomas Hardy,” a song that has a pleasing rock vibe but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous triad. Following that is “March of the Martians,” a film score-esque instrumental that really does sound like the battle symphony for a group of otherworldly creatures. The escalating intensity of the track primes you to anticipate a wild second half of the album. In reality, the two most rock-heavy tracks there—“ Not Alright” and “Does It Feel Good” are significantly weaker than their predecessors, lacking their abundance of hooks. The two ballads, though, are gorgeous. Both songs are vaguely reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”—soft, bluesy, and unexpectedly intimate. Ending the album with the vulnerability of “I Tried” is a surprising move, considering the totally different atmosphere of Track One, but the emotion in every note of the song will ensure that you’ll walk away with a high opinion of these two Canadian rockers.
In the past, The Pack A.D. have been compared to The White Stripes. Surely, both bands have the sense of rawness that many guitar-drum duos possess, but The Pack A.D. are quirky in a different way. Their Dollhouse is off-kilter, lurid, and fun to explore, even though it’s not picture-perfect.