Song Dogs is a collection of 11 songs — eight originals plus three well-chosen and relatively obscure covers — sung and played by Asheville-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Taylor Martin.
By definition, Song Dogs doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre classification. There’s a kind of good natured-yet-world-weary vibe to these songs, one that calls to mind the literate-yet-accessible work of John Hiatt. On “Here Comes the Flood” (not the Peter Gabriel song), Martin’s raspy-yet-assured vocals work well set against the backdrop of lush instrumentation and chorus. The track is an exemplar of Martin’s writing, and the song’s arrangement is simply superb. An entire album of songs in this style would make for a highly enjoyable listening experience.
But Martin has more on his mind. “Eden Colorado,” for example, is a spare and gentle work that strips away the full-band aesthetic of “Here Comes the Flood,” instead presenting some nicely picked acoustic guitar alongside Matthew Smith’s delightfully evocative pedal steel guitar.
Martin’s reading of Neil Young’s “Music Arcade” (originally on Young’s 1996 album Broken Arrow) splits the difference between those two approaches. The song features subtle, solid backing highlighted by Lyndsay Pruett’s fiddle.
An almost classical aesthetic — presumably achieved by massive overdubbing of Pruett’s violin to create a string section — forms the lush foundation of “Second Sight.” Taylor’s voice stands in stark contrast with the instrumental backing, but the difference between those aural textures is effective in the context of the song.
“Hollywood” departs almost completely from any kind of Americana-leaning textures, with Matthew Dufon turning in a bass solo; Josh Shilling’s Wurlitzer piano adds some nice tone color as well. An Americana feel is central, however, to “Our Memories.” Martin sings a pretty melody in his hoary voice, with Platt adding sweet vocal harmonies on the choruses. Once again, the use of pedal steel elevates an already sturdy tune.
Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” gets a treatment that combines the best of Appalachian folk and “countrypolitan” Nashville pop of the 1960s. If one ever wondered what it might sound like if Tom Waits made a country record, this song provides a clue. The Martin/Platt duet “Milk and Honey” highlights Aaron Ramsey’s sprightly mandolin, making its only appearance on the record.
One thing that Song Dogs doesn’t do (much) is rock. A mild exception is Martin’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Sign on the Window.” The tune — originally heard on Dylan’s 1970 LP New Morning – builds upon the soulful sound of acts like Delaney & Bonnie, early Joe Cocker and The Band; in Martin’s capable hands it sounds and feels like an ideal concert set-closer.
Shilling’s piano and Smith’s pedal steel work together to form the basis of the mournful and contemplative title track, Song Dogs’ actual set closer. Here, Martin sounds world-weary with just a glimmer of hopefulness in his voice. The pedal steel solo that rounds out the tune helps make “Song Dogs” a real weeper, in the best sense of the term.
Critical to the success of Song Dogs is its production. Platt displays her mastery of the studio as a creative tool; the sparkle and polish on display here does exactly what it should do: showcase the musical assets of the artist. Working closely with Martin and studio owner Robert George, Platt has crafted a finely tuned album in which each song has been carefully arranged and completed so that it can stand on its own. But a larger success of the album is that it still feels like a cohesive whole.