IN THE ALT.COUNTRY pantheon, the Honeydogs gravitate closer to the "mainstream" side than the "alt" end. And it follows that they're more akin to the '70s AM-inspired good feelings of a Jeff Tweedy or Gary Louris than the darker, more soulful worldviews of Jay Farrar and Mark Olson. For that matter, the 'Dogs are a little bit more rock & roll than country: All of singer/guitarist Adam Levy's sidemen are recovered cover-band and/or metal players. Yet, of the current crop of Upper Midwest, neo-twingy-twangy, faux-roots barroom bands, the Honeydogs are the punkiest, the sweatiest, and the best.
Is their major-label debut capable of more? Possibly. Seen a Ghost crackles and rings with all the benefits of big-buck (yet homegrown) production. The inclusion of upgrades of two previous indie hits, the heartbreaker "Those Things Are Hers" and the sexy come-on "Your Blue Door," would be suspect if there weren't 12 newer tunes, ranging from great ("Rumor Has It," "Twitch") to tolerable (the pandering "I Miss You"). Still, the oldies remain the band's best songs, particularly "Those Things," where Levy mourns the ghost of an ex he can't forget. As always, Levy's Pirneresque one-liners are hit or miss, and rarely turn into two- or three-liners. One song's vocal hook, "you shot the cherub," is clever, but not quite keen.
And yet Seen a Ghost is the best Honeydogs album by a yard. The reverb-tinged slow dance "Mainline" shows that these boys with their heads in the stars still have their feet in the roadhouse. And as exemplified by Levy's attention to detail on "Those Things Are Hers," the album's pleasures are in its subtleties. Even when it takes lush string arrangements (courtesy of Semisonic's Jake Slichter) to help "Into Thin Air" evolve into an adventurous dreamscape--and make "Sweet Pea" into an elegant lullaby and a perfect album closer--it's the 'Dogs' smart, simple grace that makes their record a winner.
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