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Dr. Dog stares down death

Philadelphia band Dr. Dog’s latest album, “Fate,” is a fascinating soundtrack to the tension between death’s inevitability and clinging to life — there are song titles like “Hang On,” “The Old Days” and “Uncovering The Old.”

The Park The Van Records disc opens with “The Breeze,” whimsical folk rock rich with oohs and ahs. Scott McMicken’s nasal-y voice exudes innocence. Co-lead Toby Leaman takes over for “Hang On,” rooted deeply in the tradition of The Band, a noted and important Dr. Dog influence. “Why do you think we need Amazing Grace just to tell it like it is?” Leaman sings, his voice deeper and grittier than McMicken’s. “Oh, I don’t need no doctor / to tear me all apart/ I just need you to mend my heart.”

“The Old Days” is another McMicken track. Fuzzy bass, the plink-plunk of piano and nursery-rhyme choruses precede a cinematic, calliope-like break; you can see grainy 8-mm footage reeling by. The fleeting nature of the old days, indeed.

“Army Of Ancients” is classic soul. Leaman croons and Burt Bacharach strings and horns swoon. In the bridge, Leaman pleads from the depths of his soul.

This is not the sound of a band living up to its hype; it’s the sound of a band exceeding expectations.

“The Rabbit, The Bat, And The Reindeer” hews close to The Band and “We All Belong,” Dr. Dog’s previous release.

“The Ark,” “Fate’s” best song, is molten blues rock. A thumping bass line and squalling guitar accompany Leaman, who sounds like he’s on a vision quest: “God, he called for rain/ so I built an ark and no rain came/ I was ashamed.” Abandonment by God is a recurring theme on “Fate.” On the beautiful, harmony-drenched “From,” McMicken delivers these lines matter-of-factly, and it’s devastating: “Oh my God, he listens to me/ and I ain’t even talkin’ out loud/ He says my son/ now listen to me/ listen while the listenin’s good/ You’re not my son.” A bass guitar punctuates the last word.

“Fate has a funny way of coming around” Leaman growls on “The Beach,” but there’s nothing funny about any of this.

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