that dog. – Retreat From the Sun

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The highlight of Riot Fest 2017 for me was finally seeing that dog. And they played all of Retreat From the Sun from start to finish, too (drummer Tony Maxwell good-naturedly complained at one point something to the effect of “these songs were never intended to be played live in this order” – I guess it was challenging for them). I am happy to report my abiding crush on Anna Waronker had not subsided. More importantly, the band sounded great (even if not all the original members were there) and it seemed like they were finally getting their due. that dog. released three albums in the ’90s before breaking up for reasons that are disputed. Despite writing catchy, zeitgeisty songs, and being friendly with Weezer and Beck, they never made it big, or even medium. Some place the blame on indie backlash against their origins. Anna Waronker was the daughter of Warner Bros. and then Dreamworks honcho Lenny Waronker, and sisters Petra and Rachel Haden were the daughters of jazz great Charlie Haden. The band was charged with lacking indie cred and benefiting from industry nepotism. Whatever. Retreat From the Sun fucking rocks. I have to admit I didn’t care for Totally Blissed Out and I never listened to the debut; they released a reunion album (minus Petra) in 2019, which is pretty good even though I don’t own it. After the band broke up, Waronker and Petra Haden each released solo albums, and Haden joined the Decembrists for a while and guested with Green Day, the Rentals, and others. Petra Haden also recorded an a capella version of the entire The Who Sell Out album. Rachel Haden has also worked with the Rentals, as well as Nada Surf, to name just a couple. Maxwell has done composition work for film, and was Nicholas Cage’s body double in Adaptation. The Hadens sometimes join with third sister Tanya as the Haden Triplets. Anna Waronker’s spouse is Stephen McDonald of Redd Kross; her brother Joey Waronker has drummed for Beck and REM.

What I Think of This Album

The story is that this was supposed to be Anna Waronker’s solo album. Whether that changed anything would require me to listen to Totally Blissed Out again, but I suspect it made little difference. On the one hand, this is straightforward ’90s indie/power pop, with guitars that jangle and crunch, a punchy rhythm section, and analog keyboard squiggles here and there. On the other, there is the perfectly integrated violin of Petra Haden and the sweet-and-sour harmonies, both of which added something special to the mix. Top it off with incisive, heartfelt lyrics and winning melodies, and this is an album that should have been a hit.

While I believe that all music is for everyone, I can’t let go of the notion that this would have appealed immensely to young women coming of age in the ‘90s. Not as bold as Liz Phair (though there is a song about S&M) and more confident and sophisticated (not to mention, tuneful) than Juliana Hatfield, that dog. occupies a critical place in the world of female-focused indie rock narratives.

This is an album that merits repeated listens. The obvious pop songs – “Never Say Never;”  “Minneapolis;” and “Long Island” – are immediately arresting, but even the more subtle tracks, like harmony rich “I’m Gonna See You;” “Retreat From the Sun;” and “Being With You” reveal themselves with a modicum of attention. So, yes, “Minneapolis” is a charming, innocent indie-rock romance (with references to Low and LA club the Jabberjaw), though it should be noted that the heroine declines to throw it all away and chase her crush to the land of 10,000 lakes. And “Never Say Never” is the song Matt Sharp wishes he made the lead single from the first Rentals album (with fantastic work from Petra Haden on violin, and sister Tanya guesting on cello). “Long Island” is a delightful, heartwarming story of nascent love, or at least, infatuation, with the classic line “By definition a crush must hurt.”

But the case can be made that the true extent of that dog.’s talent is demonstrated by the deep cuts. The maturity and sadness of “Being With You” is punctuated by Maxwell’s machine gun snare hits and Rachel Haden’s massive bass, but the harmonies steal the show. “Gagged and Tied” is neither silly nor shocking, but rather a matter-of-fact tale of exploring sadomasochistic sex, complete with a cheeky reference to “Venus in Furs;” Petra Haden’s violin once again stars, and the harmonies are excellent. The title track is notable for its piano intro but that is rapidly overshadowed by the transcendent vocals (and handclaps! And the drum rolls!).

The band gets surprisingly tough on “Annie” but finds a way to incorporate an orchestral arrangement nonetheless. The effort on “Every Time I Try” was well worth it, with a wonderful string part and fantastic vocals. Maxwell’s drumming is perhaps under-appreciated in light of the band’s many other strengths, but his fine work on “Hawthorne” is consistent with his accomplishments throughout the album. Closer “Until the Day I Die” is a stunning, piano-driven, string-trussed, French horn gilded ballad, with alternately blasé and emotive vocals from Waronker.

Go-Go Charlotte Caffey plays guitar on “Minneapolis” and synth on “Never Say Never,” while Tanya Haden contributes cello to a couple of tracks in addition to “Never.” Chick Wolverton (who has played with Number One Cup, Liz Phair, and the Bangles) adds percussion and guitar on “Cowboy Hat.”

The Best Thing About This Album

It being too difficult to choose one song, I will have to default to the harmonies.

Release Date

April, 1997

The Cover Art

I mean, any photo of of Anna Waronker would be just fine with me, but this tonal examination of her hair, eyebrow, lashes, and iris is fantastic. I like the repeating album title across the bottom, too.

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