Getting Lost in the Psychedelia of Dope Lemon’s ‘Smooth Big Cat’

Dope Lemon - Smooth Big Cat
Dope Lemon - Smooth Big Cat
Despite repeating themes and instruments, ‘Smooth Big Cat’ by Dope Lemon is like a lava lamp: kitschy and passé, but tantalizing and hypnotic.
Listen: Smooth Big Cat – Dope Lemon

The first thing you notice about pictures of Angus Stone is his outfit, a dusk-donning soot suit complete with raven rimmed hat and a cigar candle clenched at the lips. Bearded and eyes hidden, if you look at these pictures long enough, you will very much believe that Mr. Stone dit Dope Lemon is in fact Cool Hand Luke. Look at the image of his persona sitting at the table earnest but guarded in all black lounge wear, you will very much believe that he will listen to your ponderances the same way his team wants you to listen to his latest record, Smooth Big Cat: “whiskey in one hand, smoke in the other.”

Dope Lemon - Smooth Big Cat
Dope Lemon – Smooth Big Cat
She tell me she don’t like the
rock & roll lifestyle anymore

Ohhh she says I stay up too late
Ohhh strumming my guitar for the world
Telling her things, telling her things
I never told her before
– “Hey Little Baby“, Dope Lemon

If you listen to the record long enough, you might begin to sympathize with those “beers around the pool table at midnight,” in fact, you might begin to feel like a sidewalk slab bristled by grassweeds, like paint flaking on a cornerstore sign, like dust on the doorstep, waiting to be let in; you might begin to believe that this, the slow roll of drunkenness fraying the edges of your inhibitions, is indeed “Angus’ real world.” But Smooth Big Cat, and thus Angus’ real world, does not hold much for surprises besides a few moments of note, that includes the brushstick percussion and tumbadora claps on “Hey You;” that includes “Lonely Boys Paradise” as a lo fi descendant of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer;” that includes “Smooth Big Cat’s” keyboards interpolated right into the middle of the mix.

It’s not until “Dope and Smoke” comes on that you realize that the argument whether Dope Lemon has crafted a dirty Don Henley or an Ariel Pink cowpoke record is all just decadent overcoating the lo-fi War underlayment. At his best, Dope Lemon is not working some millennial Johnny Cash on whiskey cannabis image but some serious low riding machismo. It’s not until then you realize just why he’s leaning on the hood of that Rolls-Royce: he totally intends to spring that suspension with the hydraulic lifeblood of his bottled chauvinism. After which Angus Stone’s themes begin to tumble down. With the advent of “The Midnight Slow” it is understood that Smooth Big Cat is supposed to be the “Stormy Monday” record for getting stoned, drunk or laid. Preferably in that order. The second half of this record offers no new element besides a demotape harmonica jugband blues cut in the form of “Hey Man, Don’t Look At Me Like That,” whistling on the sunset winds of every John Wayne film ever made. So even at his most reserved, he’s still banal.

I got the cocaine fling in my brain
Shake your little salt and pepper
We’ll float back to yours
– “Salt & Pepper”, Dope Lemon

Neither do the lyrics on Smooth Big Cat have listeners on the edge of their seat, mainly because the mix leaves them muddled for reasons of stylism; Angus Stone is a soft-talking coked-out rock star à la Johnny Cash or Father John Misty, why would he enunciate to make a point? His bluesman approach supposes us to be curious enough to figure it out. Thus, I’ll save you the trouble: some clever vulgarity on “Hey You,” a doped-out Neil Young moment on “Hey Little Baby,” one Claptonite turn for “Lonely Boys Paradise” and one Eagles-lite couplet too. Stone doesn’t even bother to give us a blues record for “The Midnight Slow,” so I suppose any ol’ record would do and betting for a betting man’s sake, let’s suppose it’s The Super, Super Blues Band record and call it good. But that still boils the easy majority of Smooth Big Cat down to those dogged “hey there little girl” lyrical memetics without any of the skincrawling creepiness in surnaming your squeeze a “little girl.” And I’m not surprised a rock star is obsessed with getting his jimmy rustled but at least my blood remains uncurdled re the Lolita calling card.

Much less does the instrumentation surprise; those lurking congas which, once discovered, are incandescent mood-lighting for the long-player’s tempo, but only illuminate the fact that this record’s strength lies in its mood, and what a mood.

As she comes a little bit closer
I can feel the wheels spinning around
That old blues record
Has us dancing up on the ground
– “The Midnight Slow”, Dope Lemon

Dope Lemon’s creative impulses across this record will be graded according to one element, the formula. This element can be further divided into three subcategories: neo-psychedelic blues, lo-fi Eighties rock and cowboy hypnagogia. These subcategories do not break any existing genre forms, precluding any revolutionary effect of this record (should we really expect a record with a topless, lemon-faced woman to set the world on fire?) instead this record plays with blues-based genres or, in the case of cowboy hypnagogia, injects the blues into them. Smooth Big Cat then, is an iterative record, which is never sexy no matter how hard this record may strut. But that makes the production all the more creatively satisfying: despite itself, despite repeating both themes and instruments, the music swaggers and smooth talks hairs on end, like a lava lamp, kitschy and passé, but tantalizing and hypnotic.

And like a lava lamp, this record is slow. Sure the heat rises on the opening “Hey You” but then it just rests at a simmer, indicative of our music tastes in 2019: solid block mood music, music for the algorithm that calculates the chill factor of the day. The biggest shake up to these cipher crunching doldrums doesn’t come until the album’s finisher, “Hey Man, Don’t Look At Me Like That.” Which can’t help but be gawked at because, despite it’s similar tempo to the rest of the record, sounds like a demo tape put on a record striving hard to for clean, clean production. It’s the only time we hear Stone at his warmest and most honest—everything else beforehand being rendered a facade by the cut’s rawness. And while it’s easy to claim that this too is superficial, that’s missing the point: we are superficial creatures, we mimic and copy that what we love. And that what we love is often our undoing, sugar to diabetes, fire to ashes, blues to heartbreak, all that (A Catholic education to fatalist resignation, what are you gonna do?). But I still believe in self-determination and self-determination, to some degree, implies superfluity and superficiality.

Dope Lemon © Jennifer Stenglein
Dope Lemon © Jennifer Stenglein

And often I do superficial thinking on superficial things, and my superficial reason worth living for in the new millennium is we have the option to live whenever we want: the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, and so on. Personally, I like to say I live in the Seventies, but as of Smooth Big Cat, Angus Stone is the only person who can make this claim and mean it, even when his record flubs it.

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Dope Lemon - Smooth Big Cat

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Smooth Big Cat

an album by Dope Lemon

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