If you were to ask me to name the qualities that bind most of my favorite bands together, I think I’d say, “a great bar band that sounds like they could write an amazing Broadway musical.” The New York-based rock quintet fever dolls meets and far exceeds this standard. Not only can I not wait for the band’s debut album when it should arrive, but I’m also very excited for the day when its members put on a musical adaptation of There is no country for old people or something.
Co-founders Evan Allis and Renn Mulloy, who launched the Fever Dolls in 2018 in Burlington, Vermont, drew the band’s name from two seemingly opposing creative influences: proto punk band the New York Dolls and the soundtrack disco infused for Saturday night fever (the movie that made “Stayin’ Alive” famous). Still, listen to many of the Fever Dolls’ best tracks, currently available as a handful of singles and a five-song EP, and you might detect a hint of country and bluegrass.
That is to say, Fever Dolls seem to borrow from an entirely new set of artistic influences on every track, while sounding like themselves. This “musical hodgepodge” quality can get exhausting, but the few bands that have figured out how to navigate it have often become my absolute favorites. (See also: the New Pornographers, for a band that blends a whole host of influences into something oddly cohesive and cohesive.)
Sidebar: I wonder if musical eclecticism is a good thing for bands that might hope to find new listeners on Spotify. The streaming service served me three different Fever Dolls songs, in three very different settings, before concluding that they were all from the same band, which I quickly became obsessed with. I have to imagine that incorporating several different influences helps bands reach many users who listen to different types of music.
One good thing about Fever Dolls at this point in their evolution is that the band only has nine songs that have been released publicly. Their first full album (assuming they ever record one) is still somewhere in the hazy future. This fact makes it easy to consume Fever Dolls’ entire catalog of music in an hour, realizing how many different styles the band pulls into their music, while still staying within the world of indie rock.
Of these nine songs, I particularly enjoy the rock-adjacent arena “The Distance”, the acoustic lament “Mrs. Carver”, and the most directly danceable “Out of Vogue”. But by far my favorite Fever Dolls song – as in “this is basically the only song I’ve listened to for two weeks in a row” – is “All the Best Debts”.
“All the best debt” was consciously written by co-founder Allis as a song, the band could play at the start of sets at shows where they appeared in the lineup with other artists. The song was designed to be compelling to people who came to see someone else, hoping to convince them to stick around and listen to what Fever Dolls has to offer. As such, it starts small and gradually builds in intensity, finding ways to highlight each member of the five-piece ensemble, with particular highlights for lead vocalist Mulloy and bassist Mitchell Parrish. By the end, “All the Best Debts” has a vaguely lyrical quality to it, while still being the kind of song you might not be surprised to hear the world’s best band playing in the world’s worst dive bar.
The song also fits my “I bet Fever Dolls would write a good musical” notion, because despite all of its indie rock trappings, “All the Best Debts” is structured almost exactly like the opening of a musical that slowly introduces its main characters during its opening melody. It’s a neat trick, and it sounds like an almost perfect concert opening to me (but who goes to concerts these days?).
But I have more personal reasons for recommending an obscure indie band, even one whose music I love as much as I love Fever Dolls songs. I firmly believe that good art finds us exactly when we need it most. Taylor Swift’s “Mine” will always be the soundtrack to a difficult time in my marriage that my wife and I have since overcome, while Gang of Youths’ “The Heart Is a Muscle” was pretty much all I was listening to the month before came out publicly as a trans woman. “All the Best Debts” served a similar purpose.
I first heard the song recently while driving through the New Mexico desert on a trip I had taken to intentionally confront a difficult pain from my past. I listened to it once. And then again. And even. And even. I always listen to the song on repeat; somewhere inside I can hear a vague assurance that even though my pain is real, and my pain is horrible, and my pain seems to destroy me too often, there are other people waiting to lift me up, even if they don’t know.
I have absolutely no idea what inspired Fever Dolls to write this song, but I do know that when I hear the lyrics “So when you tell them you saw me, tell them I took the long way”, I feel a little more seen. . And that’s one of the most powerful gifts that art can give us.
Music by Fever Dolls is available on all major music streaming platforms. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.