At one point during a behind-the-scenes video about the making of No Color, Dodos frontman Meric Long is hunched over a vibraphone, screaming facedown into its metal planks while a mic in the adjoining room records the tinny echoes of his yelps. He looks like a crazy person. It's good to see The Dodos back to their old ways.
"Rattle-folk" became a popular term among music writers trying to describe the sound of the band's first two albums. It was a frustratingly meaningless term, a purportedly tidy summation of something not easily summed up. But despite the vagueness of the press they were receiving, one thing was certain: The band's wild, sweet mess of foot stomping, fingerpicking and frantic drum clatter made for some seriously invigorating two-man pop. Somewhat disappointingly, a lot of the "rattle" that made those records so special was squeezed out of their last album, 2009's Time to Die. Their knack for complex melody and their notable technical prowess remained intact, but at the hand of famed indie rock producer Phil Ek, the songs were tied into such neat little packages that you almost didn't even notice them. This brings us to No Color, with Long face planted into a vibraphone, squawking away.
When it came time to record, they reunited with Beware of the Maniacs and Visiter producer John Askew to collaborate behind the boards. In a back-to-basics approach for a live-it-and-breathe-it kind of band, they holed themselves up in the studio for two months with, according to their Twitter feed, "every instrument known to man." It was a post-production decision to rid the album almost entirely of the vibraphone (and the vibraphonist) they were so excited about on Time to Die that really took them back to their basics though, operating again as a duo. Given the self-imposed restrictions of their setup—a guitar player without a pick, a drummer without a kick drum, a band without a bass player, writing dancey pop songs without synths—the two guys on board are going to have to work harder than a band with more members to produce their sound. And so they do—putting the band's visceral energy at the forefront.
For the first time ever, Long uses an electric guitar as his primary instrument, but its slight sheen is warmed by all the sonic oddities dropped into nearly every fold—this is where those tinny echoes from his vibraphone experiment come into play, or, say, the subtle flamenco twang in "Companions"—and it certainly doesn't hurt having Neko Case's distant backing vocals on every other song. Playing an electric rather than an acoustic serves to downplay the botched, warts-and-all charm of their early material in favor of more precise-sounding compositions. Again, though, it's a self-inflicted restriction that saves them from sounding sterile: Long still opts to fingerpick, giving the recording a slightly jagged quality that wouldn't be there if he used a standard pick. They're making an awful lot of noise, but it hits on a primal, intimate level.
The front half of the album is particularly huge-sounding, full of chattering, on-the-rim thwacks and untamed riffs, but the bigness that the Dodos achieve here is not anthemic in a theatrical, Arcade Fire kind of way or of the Animal Collective build-and-release variety. Tracks like "Good" and "When Will You Go" come off like evolved jam sessions, capturing a certain instantaneous expression that could only be possible with Long and drummer Logan Kroeber having played together for so many years. The guitar riffs and drum rhythms are tightly interlocked, but there's a pulsing back-and-forth between them, too.
Maybe the best thing about No Color is that it never seems to aim for grandeur. It just happens. "Going Under" starts off likably enough: Long is in wounded-boy mode, his vocals riding the wave of Kroeber's bobbing drums. "You're getting good at giving up/this ship is going under, going under, going under," he sings. But then, just as he's done so many times in the past, he lets out a guttural bark about halfway through, calling on the drums to engulf everything else while the ever-present whir of cymbals periodically turns to crashes. Long's vocals literally start going under the racket, but then, for no real apparent reason, he starts cooing like a bird, nonchalantly tossing off the weight of the world. Their willingness to throw caution to the wind and just go for it—whether "it" means mimicking a winged animal, screaming into a vibraphone, or just banging the shit out of drums—allows them to reach an intensity that matches a band three times their size. The Dodos' uncalculated eagerness is not lost in a current indie rock landscape where exerting so much effort is not in fashion, and maybe never has been. No Color is a kicking and screaming accusation against those jaded attitudes, well-mannered arrangements and contentment with simplicity. And the best part is, The Dodos might not even mean it to be.