Washington based power pop combo Dot Dash are very prolific for a DIY band. Not necessarily on a Guided By Voices scale, but they’ve released six albums over a seven year stretch and gained some very positive support across the net in the process. Some of their earlier works can sound a little ragged and mixed stylistic choices could sometimes make the band seem impulsive, but when on form, it’s always been possible to hear their post-punk and power pop influences shining through the budgetary constraints.
2018’s ‘Proto Retro’ absolutely blows previous efforts out of the water. With a budget that would suit many of the power pop bands of the early 80s – Shoes, Automatics, Off Broadway et al – Dot Dash now sound like a band full of confidence. Along with the vastly improved audio comes vastly improved songs and in material like ‘Fast Parade’ – a three minute belter with the kind of ringing guitars a thousand Big Star wannabes would kill for – they’re a band ready to reach out to a bigger audience.
Combining a world of shimmering guitars falling somewhere between The Soft Boys and Pretenders, ‘Grey Blue Green’ wastes no time in flaunting this new and improved Dot Dash and the music is the perfect counterpoint to a voice that sounds like The Psychedelic Furs’ Jonathan Butler on one of his quieter days, while as the track progresses, there are also traces of oft-forgotten UK goth-poppers The Bolshoi. In and out in well under three minutes, it sticks rigidly to DD’s prior penchant for short and sharp songs, but does a far smarter job all around. Pushing the drums forth and valuing more of a pacey style, ‘Dead Letter Rays’ draws from the US college rock style of the mid-80s, but represents its influences with a hefty punch, suggesting such sounds are as relevant and radio friendly now as ever. You’ll hear parts of ‘Lovey’ era Lemonheads in the rhythm guitar work, which contrasted with various oohs on loan from a pop punk record and a sub-60s twangy guitar solo ensures this is a really well rounded track. By the time the chorus appears for the last time – and sounds better than ever – this number becomes one of the album’s highlights. That said, it’s hard to pick favourites from an LP this good…
Likely taking its name from the 80s alt-rock band, ‘Green on Red’ is a slightly rougher jangle fest, but all of its sharp edges – in this case never so far removed from the more melodic parts of Green on Red and The Mighty Lemon Drops – there’s a great balance due to some really full sounding melodic bass runs and a shift in the chorus pushing further towards some great 90s indie sounds. While the guitars remain dominant, the use of unfussy vocal harmonies on the main hook always suggests that melody was at the forefront of the band’s intentions. The retro jangle of ‘Parachute Powerline’ often calls to mind The Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock musically, while vocally, the natural style works well with the combination of hard strummed strings and what sounds like a quirky Farfisa organ, while the aforementioned ‘Fast Parade’ has more than a pinch of Buzzcocks at play, albeit with riffs retooled for NME readers from 1993. Again, Dot Dash’s new found gifts for melody win out. In this instance, the chorus is broken up with some brave woos and a defiant but thin sound of the lead guitar gives the nod to various 60s heroes, all before everything crashes out with various bars of instrumental power pop jangle. Sort of a Dot Dash homage to ‘Bandwagonesque’ by Teenage Fanclub, ‘World’s Last Payphone’ offers a fantastic melody with multi-layered guitars laying down a huge jangle. Whilst it isn’t a huge leap from ‘Fast People’ or ‘Dead Letter Rays’, it cements the idea that the band have finally found a strong and consistent sound that really works for them. While ‘Proto Retro’ can’t lay claim to much in the originality department, nobody could argue against it’s consistent qualities.
A throwback to the more 60s influenced material from 2016’s ‘Headlights’, the sharp ‘TV/Radio’ teases with messages about the current US media and refers to the “president” as “a man in a wig talkin’ about China” before winding up with a reference to the ashes of Suicide’s Alan Vega. How it lyrically manages to connect such disparate topics in such a short time is anyone’s guess, but the music is, perhaps, more important. Right from the opening chord – a definite homage to ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ – and through the hard beats of mod revival sounds and more than a few chord changes that could be The Jam circa 1980 or Nine Below Zero, it’s one of the numbers on this album that shows the most direct approach previously taken by Dot Dash is at its more blatant. Even here, though, the upturn in quality is clear, with a much better vocal presence than so much that has gone before. By the time this tune reaches its climax, with pounded snares and a hard twang of the guitar, you just get the feeling that this is what Dot Dash have been aiming for since the beginning.
For fans of jangly indie sounds with heavy 80s influences and taut power pop grooves, ‘Proto Retro’ isn’t just worthy of an ear; it’s an album those listeners will absolutely love. Few bands have made such a giant leap between albums: it’s hard to imagine at times that this is the band who delivered some rough and ready Jam influenced material just two years previously. There’s a small chance that some of their more rigid fans will resent such an obvious move towards more commercial material, but that doesn’t matter, since ‘Proto Retro’ will certainly garner Dot Dash a whole selection of new fans, assuming the album reaches the right ears and people with influence.
Completely out of left field, this is one of the best albums of 2018.