I'm still not 100% sure of where this album lands in my personal collection. I like it more every time I hear it, which makes it a grower. But it's a slow grower. I definitely appreciate that all the members are writing the songs instead of just Terry. Nothing against Mr. Taylor but The Lost Dogs was conceived as a collaborative effort and in the past its fallen away from this ideal.
Two years ago The Lost Dogs piled into a van and drove the length of Route 66, starting in Chicago and ending up at the Santa Monica Pier. Along the way, they stopped at failing diners, truck stops and mom-and-pop stores, setting up and giving free concerts. Joining them on this trip was a newfangled GPS system that allowed fans to track their progress online and in real time, giving those fans an inside glimpse at the band and each wrong turn and lead-footed move. It was a great (vicarious) ride. Too bad you missed it.
Having logged all those hours behind the wheel, the band wrote scads of songs about the journey. Real songs about real people and real places. Places from the glory days of Route 66 that you can find on Google Earth, but you’d best be quick because these non-corporate businesses tend to become ghosts overnight. Presented in the form of Old Angel, The Dogs’ ninth release, these songs capture the tone of this trip, ranging from “it seemed like a good idea at the time” silly (“American Main Street”) to somber moments of longing for times past (“Desert Flowers”). They pay tribute to Wild Bill Hickok in the rocking “Wicked Guns” and humbly ask for safety while on the road with the gentle “Traveling Mercies.”
Throughout the album, the boys couch these Americana songs in a subdued rock vibe and assorted countrified instruments such as fiddles, mandolins and pedal steel. This approach ensures that these songs won’t fit into the preset playlist of any local radio station, though, like the ghost of a road they traveled upon, the tunes would have been gobbled up by the long-gone album format of decades past.
The album highlights are legion. “Dancin’ on the Devil’s Elbow” opens with rhythmic sawing (not one of those newfangled musical saws but a real saw creatively working its way through a piece of real wood) before becoming a joyous remembrance of friends meeting in a restaurant in Missouri. “Pearl Moon” opens with quiet acoustic guitars, recalling Hooverville camps with lyrics like “Does hunger have a lesson to teach?”
Then come the stark realities of life when one of the vocalists passionately sings “And our babies died” while trying to cross the desert. I mention “one of the vocalists” because three of the members sing, often joining their voices for rich vocal harmonies but nowhere as effectively as they do in “The World is Against Us,” a track in which they combine to create a sound worthy of the best of Crosby, Stills and Nash. “Dead End Diner” tells the story of a dying diner through the eyes of a waitress who, despite cutbacks in hours and reduced benefits, finds hope in both a regular who she’s “almost sure that he ain’t gay” and Obama making promises on the radio.
The best track is perhaps their remake of Daniel Amos’ “Glory Road,” a tune that originally appeared on an album chronicling the journey of a fictitious older couple as they took their final vacation on, yep, Route 66. The original song, though charming, was all elbows. This time out the Dogs ironed out the kinks while retaining the charm, forming an absolute masterpiece of a rocker in the process.
As much as I like it now, Old Angel continues to grow on me with each listen. The songs speak of dusty roads and deep friendships that have weathered the years, of lonely times and intoxicating celebrations. The Lost Dogs are four stellar songwriters and lyricists, packing in well over 100 years of experience, and these are some of the best songs you may never hear. Route 66 may have become neglected. It would be a pity to neglect Old Angel as well.