Little Rock's the Boondogs make expert bedroom dream pop buttressed by rock-solid melodies, subtle but powerful guitar work, and the scratched-throat beauty of husband-wife band leaders Jason Weinheimer and Indy Grotto.
The rise of indie-yuppie acts like Death Cab for Cutie (who just jumped from indie to major label) and practically any other group appearing on a soundtrack from The O.C. ought to signal great times ahead for the Boondogs, especially since Fever Dreams, the band's newest album on Little Rock's Max Recordings label, wipes the floor with Death Cab's Plans.
But the Boondogs know better. The band's ship was supposed to come in with the late-'90s dot-com tide, specifically the Garageband.com site, a widely praised venture spearheaded by the Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison. Garageband accepted mp3s from unknowns and unsigneds from all over the country and let online listeners vote for who should win a major-label contract.
In 1997, the Boondogs put out their first album, Smarter Than Some, on Valmar, a Little Rock label that lasted less than a year. Short of moving to New York City or Austin, something the Boondogs had no intention of doing, the group was running out of options to break their sound wider than the city limits of Little Rock.
"I read about [Garageband] in The New York Times and uploaded two songs the next day," Weinheimer says. "We had our music at mp3.com already, but nothing really came of that. The Garageband model was appealing for two reasons: the air of legitimacy that Jerry Harrison brought and the power-to-the-people aspect of the contest."
As it turns out, the people, at least the ones who clicked on the Garageband site, were taken with the Boondogs' sound, which, at the time, was slightly salted with alt-country atmospherics.
By November 1999, when the first Garageband contest voting closed, the Boondogs had the first and second most popular songs ("Carbon or Gold" and "40 Day Ahab") and were awarded the first record contract given out over the Internet. The signing made national news wires. Things looked good for the little band from Little Rock. The high didn't last long.
"It took us almost four months to get a contract together," Weinheimer notes ruefully. "The first contract [Garageband] sent us was not even close to fair and agreeable. The scary thing is we heard that three other bands signed the 'standard' contract with no negotiations whatsoever."
Garageband, with all of its dot-com sparkle, was turning out to be yet one more label with more hopes and dreams than expertise. Still, the Boondogs had the sweet $250,000 first prize to cover expenses for a new CD, which was recorded in Memphis' Ardent Studios with the highly regarded Jim Dickinson on board as producer.
"We knew from the very beginning there were people running the show who had no idea how to put a record out," Weinheimer says. "We acted in good faith, though, and hoped for the best. Of course we got cash up front to be safe. In the end, they spent approximately $300,000 on the band, and we got to have a lot of fun making the record and playing a bunch. They were in breach of contract early on for not putting our record out in time, but they kept us happy with generous tour support and the like. About six months before [Garageband] closed up, we saw what was happening and just decided to ride it out."
Though they retained the rights to all the songs generated in the Ardent sessions, the Boondogs declined to put out an album they felt wasn't ready and, with Garageband gone, would have had no backing. Instead, the band kept at it in Little Rock and, starting in 2001, made and released two EPs and a full-length CD recorded on home studio equipment. Inevitable lineup changes, fewer and fewer live dates, and Weinheimer and Grotto having their first child seemed to signal a major slowing down for the Boondogs.
But Fever Dreams demonstrates that the band's larger ambitions aren't dead. Produced by Fat Possum founder Bruce Watson in his Water Valley, Mississippi, schoolhouse studio, Fever Dreams' lyrics speak of restlessness, anxiety, and paranoia while the well-appointed pop music beneath it is as lush as a bed of silk.
"You won't believe what I saw in a dream/It's the end of the world as we know it/The end" goes the opening of Fever Dreams. Grotto and Weinheimer trade songs throughout, a conversation of sorts, with Grotto's shimmering "I Don't Belong" being one of the record's many highlights.
"A friend heard the record and asked what our fascination with the apocalypse was all about," Weinheimer says. "But he missed the point. It's really just an obsession with the apocalypse as metaphor. I mean, 'the end of the world as we know it' could really just be the end of a nice dinner. The check comes; it's time to pay. What a drag. Who wants to go home?"
The Boondogs' home is Little Rock, but their sound is larger than that. Hopefully they won't need an Internet start-up to have that message heard this time.