Photo: Sean Daigle
In the past year, journalists have doubled down on ringing the death knell for rock music, which some say is drowning in a rising tide of synth-enhanced pop music and thumping hip-hop. The various pieces — in Billboard, The New York Times, Forbes, The New Republic and others — paint similar portraits: The deaths of legends like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, the success of elder-favoring rock fest Desert Trip (or as Twitter derisively dubbed it, “Oldchella”) and the lack of breakout youngsters playing traditional guitar music spell bad news for rock’s ongoing cultural significance.
All of these articles describe a genre on life support, a genre whose primary figurehead is Dave Grohl — a guy who will qualify for an AARP membership in two years. They also all miss the point. Rock music isn’t dying. It’s transforming.
No band better demonstrates the change in contemporary rock music than A Giant Dog, a five-piece group from Austin, Texas, that sounds like everything you love about rock ’n’ roll, simmering ominously in a giant pot. Toy, the band’s fourth album in five years, was released on Aug. 25. It’s the sound of the pot boiling over, spewing a wholly satisfying holy mess of glam, desert rock, country and punk in every direction.
On Toy, the group further refines the tawdry, lo-fi punk aesthetic established in their early independent albums, Fight and Bone. If Pile, the band’s 2016 Merge Records debut, was about planting a flag in the ground under a banner that reads, “I Believe in Girls and Weed and Rock ’n’ Roll,” Toy’s mission statement is more like, “I’m feeling all fucked-up inside, but I’ve got shit to do today.”
A Giant Dog makes music that celebrates flaws and failures, putting the spotlight on the warts that make life vital and multidimensional. On “Photograph,” singer Sabrina Ellis and guitarist Andrew Cashen (who founded the group together in 2008) belt their best pop-punk croon in an ode to aging love, singing, “I wanna kiss you when your teeth all rot / And all of your memories have been forgot,” with the lightning-crackle jubilance of love at first sight. “Survive” starts frankly, with Ellis singing, “I’m such a piece of shit / I want to kill myself, kill myself / But darling if I did / You’d have no one else.”
Vulnerability isn’t new in rock music, but there’s still a refreshing zing every time it crops up. So many of the bands that live in rock Valhalla — the ones you can hear dozens of times a day on classic-rock radio — play up an aspirational rock ’n’ roll fantasy that might be fun to inhabit for a while, but will never represent the listener, no matter how close Bad Company is to their heart. Contemporary pop music is also full of anthems to invulnerability — A Giant Dog’s frankness is in stark contrast to, say, The Band Perry’s godawful “Live Forever.” Instead of focusing intently on the micro moment, the band’s songwriting focuses on deep, years-long currents of anxiety, and meets them head on, with unwavering ferocity.
Part of that ferocity is embodied in Ellis, whose well-honed stage presence is manic and magnetic. Watching A Giant Dog perform is like sitting courtside at an exorcism, as Ellis dances and writhes like a woman possessed, guitarists Cashen and Andy Bauer shred like lightning, and rhythm section members Graham Low and Daniel Blanchard thunder on in seemingly telepathic synchronicity. Did I mention the dragon? There’s usually an inflatable dragon, too.
All of that — the unflinching emotional resonance, the white-hot punk intensity, the realness — wraps into a shapeshifting package that’s tough to pin down. Operating on a base layer of ’70s rock with Thin Lizzy grooves and KISS flamboyance, A Giant Dog dips its way into glam or cowpunk when you least expect it. The thing that’s probably the closest comparison to Toy is St. Mojo, a record that slam-dances its way around soulful rock ballads and was released earlier this year by AGD’s sister band Sweet Spirit (which also features Ellis, Cashen and Blanchard).
A Giant Dog feels like a breath of fresh air in a rock landscape dominated by doom prophecies. As the genre continues to splinter into sub-sub-subgenres — which often get absorbed into various flavors of pop and electronic music — music writers aren’t wrong to feel like “pure” rock music is going away. They are wrong if they assume that watching bands play with the form, breaking the mold and gluing it back together again, isn’t good. It’s what’s exciting about rock music in 2017, and it’s what A Giant Dog does best.