Album cover

As this lockdown drags on, excitement is at a premium. Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” once just a guilty pleasure, has now become a breakfast tradition. Which is another way of saying that a new album to review felt something like Christmas in April. All the more interesting because the Devil Doves are a band I have been writing about for a long time.

Commit to the Bit is something of a sonic departure from the percussive acoustic guitar attack of previous Devil Doves releases. Compared to albums like The Devil Doves and Also Playing, the tracks have a fuller sound with more sonic depth. This is in large part due to the emergence of keyboardist Jeff Straw, whose fingerprints are all over the album. While in the past he at times seemed to be adding Nicky Hopkins-esque gloss to already completed songs, he is now frequently the driving force behind arrangements.

In conjunction with percussionist Kyle Davis’ cajon work and the odd electric guitar, the result is a highly accessible sound that anyone should be able to get into quickly (if not instantly)

Thematically, it’s a darker and more introspective album than past Doves’ releases. Singer Junior Kauffman’s lyrics have always contained a little film noir and gallows humor, but this time around Kauffman seems to have Robert Johnson’s hellhound pressing down on his chest. 

Not that it’s a downer -- there is actually quite a bit going on here. The frantic “Girl With No Face,” assures us that things are going to be OK in a rather paranoid sort of way. I’m not believing that mixed signal for a moment. “Scribble,” has a call and response guitar riffs over a thick rhythm groove, the perfect base for Kauffman’s signature scat style vocals and the odd harmony. “Thunderstorm” is catchy and fun, with a nice little lead guitar break. 

But the core of the album, to me at least, are the five songs “Plain to See,” “The Devil Ain’t the Devil, “Kinda Kinda Would,” “Willoughby,” and “Live Until You’re Dead.” They share – implicitly and explicitly -- common themes of disaffection, anxiety, and resilience.

“Plain to See” is a minor key shuffle about the house on the hill dream, but by this point the house is populated with tenants who only want to “make a bunch of noise.” Meanwhile, we are “cheating off the dumbest kid in class and expecting a good grade.” The chorus absolutely drops, leading with the relative major chord. Achingly pretty.

“The Devil Ain’t The Devil” plays like a throwback to the sound of the Dove’s early recordings, and the themes of anxiety and fear are out in the open. The Doves might be oddly upbeat about what is chasing them, but it’s very real nonetheless.

”Kinda Kinda Would” seems to be about the difficulty of growing up. It brings to mind Robert Earl Keen’s “Paint the Town Beige” with sharper lyrics: “but I’m pretty sure I did because the things you said I said were so precise.” The chorus of “and my radio, is set to rock and roll” is visceral -- funny how that could mean either the celebration of being young or the deep regret of age. 

“Willoughby” is the class of the album. A slow waltz of sorts, and Kauffman has never been better as a lyricist: “the old twilight zones, that are on really late, the more that I watch ‘em, the more I relate.”  This might not be something you can beat: “[h]oly smokes, I’m out of jokes.” But still, there is a promise to always come out swinging.

The album wraps with “Live Until Your Dead,” a song that breathes pressure. “This anxiety, it ain’t no mystery at all, you got to show up when they call.” Here the narrator is even lashing out – “I’m taking back my business, you keep your forgiveness.” The advice of “live until you’re dead” is unsatisfying. 

There are only a couple of misses. The title track, “Commit to the Bit,” wastes some nice music on the repeated lyric “everybody’s got to love and fuck and fight.”  Maybe it was meant to be provocative, but to me it’s just sort of ugly and unpleasant. “Sharp Turns,” which was halfway to being the best song the Doves have ever done, is ruined by a dopey sing-rapped bridge. But that’s about it. 

Past reviews of Devil Doves albums were easy for me. Also Playing, in particular, was just jumping from one effortless songwriting masterpiece to another. Commit to the Bit is harder. This one might not be as fun for me, but I relate harder to it. “Kinda Kinda Would” and “Willoughby” in particular hit me straight in the gut. These conversations aren’t always the easy kind, but they are worth having.