One painful incident of media sexism is an article about this band that was cruelly headlined “That Dad”. The snide implication was that the members of that dog. had only made it to a recording booth thanks to the industry connections of their fathers: lead vocalist and singer/songwriter Anna Waronker is the daughter of producer Larry Waronker (who has worked with Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright, Brian Wilson, and many others), and sisters Petra and Rachel Haden are the daughters of famed jazz bassist Charlie Haden.
Ignoring the sexist double standards (when has a well-connected bloke ever been torn apart by the media for his family ties?), it’s insulting to a band who always sounded terrific and had obviously worked hard to create a unique sound that made them stand out from the crowded riot grrrl pack. By combining the pretty harmonies of classic girl group pop, the dirty crunch of guitar-based punk, and with Petra Haden’s violin dancing on top, they really were onto something different, and really did sound unique for their short-lived run in the 90s. Softer and less political than Sleater-Kinney, they nevertheless commanded total attention through Waronker’s songwriting acumen (Totally Crushed Out! is a concept album about adolescent woes that actually works) and their focused distillation of various styles as a band.
So it was disappointing for fans, sadly in too short supply, when that dog. called it quits in 1997 after Retreat from the Sun failed to burn up the charts as it obviously aimed to do (the commercial sheen of the production was crying out for a hit). Like Liz Phair with her self-titled album, the band were punished by existing fans for sounding too commercial, whilst failing to attract new ones due to their idiosyncrasy – and like Phair’s album, the failure is unfortunate because they actually produced an excellent album.
22 years later, with only a few reunion shows in between, comes their follow-up to Retreat. Old LP is immediately recognisable as the work of the same band, even if Petra Haden has sadly not returned. Girl group harmonies are still utilised throughout the album, there is plenty of room for guitar noise, and strings remain an elemental part of their sound, with various violinists taking Petra Haden’s place. The lead vocals sound slightly wearier and less carefree with age, but the difference there is only subtle. “Alone Again” may sound more forlorn than anything they’ve ever done, but it’s immediately followed by the sprightly, wittily growled “Down Without a Fight”, which shows that they still have quite a range.
However, the most important thing they haven’t lost in the last two decades is their songwriting ability. Old LP is chock full of good songs, and with none running over 5 minutes even the (few) weaker ones don’t tax your patience. The album starts off strong with the deceptively soothing arpeggios of “Your Machine” and the stomping slow-verse-fast-chorus pattern of “Just the Way”. “When We Were Young” may contain their finest harmonies, in its coda especially, which is more layered and complex than any vocal approach they’ve tried previously, a cascade of different “when we were young”s that build on each other to really stirring effect. “Never Want to See Your Face Again” starts with gently chiming xylophone and only gets dreamier from thereon in, yet its choruses will stir you from your slumber with a gorgeous warmth.
And then there’s the title track. Most that have reviewed this album report having being blown away by it, and although it initially sounded like an over-the-top Disney musical song to me, I soon fell hard for it too. It’s the one track with a full orchestra – complete with strings, brass, percussion, woodwind, the lot, conducted by Steve Gregoropolous – to replace Petra Haden, so it has a grandeur that the rest of the album lacks, which means that at first it can sound out of place. But several listens in and it’s revealed to be the album’s perfect climax. In a work full of regret, reminiscences, and pain about past times, it reveals what might be the biggest pain of all: being separated from the ones we love, yet suddenly being confronted with records of their existence. The record that this song focuses on is indeed an “Old LP”, playing at the funeral of Charlie Haden until, magically: “I can hear you breathe/I can see you right in front of me”. But listening to the song a second time, I was reminded of old photos of my grandpa who passed away recently, and feeling the warmth of his living presence come rushing back to me. With tears in my eyes, I struggled to listen to the rest of the song. It has that effect: it will remind you of your lost ones, and those magical, painful moments where modern technology helps to bring them back to you, but also remind you of their irreparable distance.
As a tribute to “That Dad”, it’s perfect.