Plug In, Turn On, Burn it Up
The Lost Dogs Make Their Best Record in Years

I have a lot I could write about this week.

We’re in the middle of the summer tidal wave, and I’m practically inundated with new tunes. Just from the last week, I have the new Muse (scattered and bizarre), the new Sufjan Stevens outtakes album (fantastic, if a little less fantastic than its parent record), and the solo debut of Thom Yorke (pretty awful). I’m also still forming my opinion of one of the year’s most ambitious projects, the new triple-CD from the Early November, a band I’d previously ignored. This is good stuff, though, a big leap from their prior records, and all wrapped in a neat concept, even if the execution is a little cliched.

I could also talk about the huge number of new records I’m looking forward to, including the new Bruce Cockburn next week, and the August arrival of new ones from Ani Difranco, Unwed Sailor, Outkast, the Mars Volta, Bob Dylan and Ty Tabor. (You’ll probably never see all those names in the same sentence again.) There’s also the double solo record from Matthew Friedberger (of the Fiery Furnaces) coming up, and what I have heard of that is, to put it mildly, insane.

Yeah, I could talk about all of that. But even with all of the amazing music I already have, and the no-doubt amazing music I have yet to hear, I’m probably most excited about a little country record by a bunch of old guys nobody’s ever heard of.

Longtime readers will be familiar with them, though. They’re called the Lost Dogs, and what started as a novelty project for four of my favorite songwriters has turned into a main gig, one with its own history and extensive back catalog. They were the Traveling Wilburys, pop-rockers moonlighting as cowboys, but now they’re more like Crosby, Stills and Nash – three guys who have found a brotherhood and a rare musical harmony with each other.

A quick history lesson. In 1991, four of the best songsmiths to never breach the mainstream decided to take a vacation from their main bands and make a fun record called Scenic Routes. Terry Taylor is the genius behind Daniel Amos, Derri Daugherty is the voice of the Choir, Mike Roe is the blues-loving guitar god who leads the 77s, and the late, great Gene Eugene was the main man in the brilliant Adam Again. If none of those names sound familiar to you, I actually envy you – you have decades of fantastic records to catch up on.

Part of the thrill of Scenic Routes was in hearing these guys pull on their cowboy boots and sing this truly rootsy stuff, this dusty blues and twangy country. Taylor has a history with it – the first two Daniel Amos albums are ten-gallon-hat affairs – but hearing the others in this setting was the best kind of odd. The first three Dogs albums are all over the map, from sweet country ballads to Beach Boys pop to three-chord blues crunchers, and the fun these guys had making them is obvious. With 1999’s Gift Horse, the others took a back seat to Taylor, who wrote nearly every song – that record was more consistent, yet a tad less fun.

And then, in 2000, Gene Eugene died.

And though the Dogs have soldiered on since then, it hasn’t been the same. Real Men Cry, the first three-legged Dogs album, had some great moments, but felt like the trio convincing itself to keep going, and the four efforts that followed have been a mixed bag. Nazarene Crying Towel was a beautiful gospel album, but a live record (Green Room Serenade Part Tour), an album of reinventions of old songs (Mutt), and a diversion into instrumental beach music (Island Dreams) all in a row made the band seem rudderless. None of their material is bad – far from it – but one got the sense that they hadn’t fully recovered from Gene’s passing.

Until now, that is.

I can’t tell you how glad I am to report that their new album, The Lost Cabin and the Mystery Trees, is their strongest in more than half a decade. In fact, if you draw a line after Eugene’s death, then I would go so far as to say that this is the definitive Lost Dogs 2.0 record. It is the first since Real Men Cry that doesn’t feel like a side project – the guys are obviously committed and dedicated to these 11 songs, and the record positively crackles with energy and flat-out fun.

I’m not sure what to attribute this newfound excitement to, but the most apparent and important change is the official addition of Steve Hindalong as the fourth Lost Dog. Hindalong is the drummer for the Choir, and one of the most original and astounding percussionists you’ll ever see. He’s been playing with the Dogs for years, bringing along his array of bizarre, exotic drums and shakers, and it’s nice to see that his contributions have been recognized with this well-deserved promotion.

I also like that while Hindalong is the first person invited into the fold since Eugene’s death, he’s obviously not trying to replace him. No one could, of course, but many of the suggestions floated through the years (Phil Madeira, Michael Knott, other earthy singer-guitarists) would have seemed like patching a wound, like bringing in someone to stand in Gene’s spot. Hindalong could never be accused of that – he’s the guy in the back, with the mallets, adding something entirely different. It’s an inspired choice.

The band also enlisted Daniel Amos and Choir bassist Tim Chandler, as they often do, and what he brings to the picture is hard to overstate as well. He is one of the four or five best bass players in the world, mostly because he never just supports the tune, he explores it. Chandler has the uncanny knack of filling the spaces in any song on which he plays, adding exactly what’s needed, and never making the easy choice, like too many bassists do.

So the gang’s all here, and thanks to Hindalong’s production, the sound is fantastic, thick and gleaming. But all that would mean little if the songs weren’t there, so it’s cause for celebration that these are the best, most fun, most thoughtful Dogs tunes in ages. Head writer Terry Taylor steps up with some classics, beginning with the opening shot, a sweet lament called “Broken Like Brooklyn.” The structures are all very simple and breezy – these are cowboy songs, after all – but the lyrics are uniformly excellent, and the Dogs sound inspired throughout.

“Broken Like Brooklyn” is about the year the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, a metaphor for loneliness and emptiness, and it sets the tone – much of The Lost Cabin is about yearning, starving for love. The title song is a classic cowboy number about tracking down a missing paramour who went in search of gold. It’s full of lovely harmonies and classic Taylor lines, like when the singer asks, “Did you find your little bit of heaven? Well, I hope that it’s missing one thing…” And his “This Business is Goin’ Down” is a hilarious tale of a failed entrepreneur and his gold-digging girl: “Now that business is in the ground, guess so are we, honey…”

The other Dogs contribute great songs as well. Daugherty and Hindalong’s “Whispered Memories” is plainly about Daugherty’s recent divorce, and as weepy a country ballad as you’d want to hear. And Mike Roe gives us another wonderful Mike Roe song with “One More Day.” But what’s truly fascinating for long-time fans is just how good Taylor has become at writing for his bandmates – he almost out-Roes Roe with “Hardening My Heart,” which Mike steps into like a well-tailored suit, if you’ll pardon the pun.

And then there are the surprises, both from Taylor. “Only One Bum in Corona Del Mar” is a splendid radio play-slash-trash opera, with witty narration from each Dog, and a children’s chorus bringing it home. It is easily the most bizarre thing the band has done, and it’s followed immediately by “Get Me Ready,” the most blazing rocker in their catalog. This is Rust Never Sleeps era Neil Young, explosive and powerful, and it’s easy to forget that half the band is over 50, with the other half right behind them.

Live, this song is a corker. I had the pleasure of seeing the band last week at the Warehouse in Aurora, and they were sharp, funny, and terrific. Their harmonies are always captivating live, and the new lineup has Daugherty on bass and Taylor on acoustic while Roe peals off gorgeous licks on his electric. They even debuted a number of new comedy routines – the Lost Dogs are almost a traveling Vaudeville act, and this time, they brought props. It was a great show, as always, and the new stuff sounds great next to the old classics.

The album concludes with a Dogs tradition, a singalong gospel number. But this time, there’s a twist – “That’s Where Jesus Is” is a stinging indictment of those who would use religion as a political tool, and an urging to follow his example and help the less fortunate. “On the corner ‘round the prostitutes is where He’ll probably show,” Taylor sings. “He gets invited to church sometimes, and sometimes He don’t go…”

I know, I know. A gospel song, that mentions Jesus by name, sung by guys that Google will tell you are Christian musicians. If you’re worried about being preached to – a fear which keeps many away from this spiritual corner of the music world – then let me assure you, I share the same fear, and the Dogs have never made me uncomfortable. I’ve always found them to be about exploring their own faith, not chastising me for my lack of same, and the honesty they bring to their work is warm and inviting.

It is entirely possible that most people reading this will hear The Lost Cabin and not understand why I’m making a big deal out of it. It is, after all, a simple set of traditional-sounding songs, some of which could sit well on country radio. And maybe the charm of the Dogs is lost on those who haven’t followed their careers. I don’t know, but I listen to this and I hear a rebirth, a new lease on life for some of my favorite musicians. They sound comfortable, creative and ready for their second 15 years, and I’m ready for them, too.

The individual Dogs have been experiencing musical rebirths on their own as well. Last year’s Fun With Sound is an amazing new project from Michael Roe, and the new Choir, O How the Mighty Have Fallen, is their best since 1990. There are rumblings of a new 77s and a new Daniel Amos, too, and the last Daniel Amos album, 2001’s double disc Mr. Buechner’s Dream, may be their best ever. They’re getting older, but they’re not going away, and records like The Lost Cabin and the Mystery Trees are like little miracles to this longtime fan.

Of course, you can’t buy it in stores, but you can get it here. While you’ve got your credit card out, go here, here, and here. For the first time in a long while, the new ones listed above are all the best places to start.

Next week, Sufjan, Muse, Yorke, the Early November, Bruce Cockburn, or, y’know, maybe something else. Who knows?

See you in line Tuesday morning.