Performers who follow on the heels of big groundbreakers hoping to sound just like them are usually nothing less than pathetic -- think of John Wesley Harding, who isn't Elvis Costello but an incredible simulation, or the Goo Goo Dolls, who rode into town on their own bogusness, thinking they could actually replace The Replacements. On That Dog's third LP, "Retreat from the Sun," it's hard not to hear how much Anna Waronker and Petra and Rachel Haden resemble Liz Phair in their seemingly offhand vocal delivery, their deviant if stunning harmonies and their weirdly striated arrangements. The whole affair seems even more calculated when you realize that Brad Wood, Phair's producer, is the producer here, too.
But there are times when all you can say about influences and shared producers is a big fat "so what." "Retreat from the Sun" earns its "so what" simply by sounding pretty damn good, and by proving how fast and how far the occasional odd little pop song can take you. There's a forthright purity to Waronker's lead vocals, and the chiffon harmonies laid over them by the Hadens are gorgeous and pitiless, like the 1,002 different shades of gray in a puff of cigarette smoke. But even though you hear lots of girlish innocence and longing on "Retreat from the Sun," the specter of bad-ass desire is never far behind.
When Waronker sings, "And I don't care if you don't treat me like a lady/and I don't care, just sit there and don't disobey me," on "Gagged and Tied," she's a creature poised between two worlds, hanging onto a few of those prom night expectations even though she knows it's her destiny to become a lean, mean spanking machine. And when she sings, "It's OK with me, I just want the company/Put on 'Venus in Furs,' and you can go home afterwards," you hear the wistfulness behind her list of demands -- she's aware of both the disposability of the act and the preciousness of it.
That Dog always sound just 10 short steps away from total happiness -- but then, those are always the 10 hardest steps. Their sound shivers between listlessness and giddiness, and the harmonies, shaped by Waronker's assertive guitars and piano and Petra Haden's lucid violin lines, and anchored by Rachel Haden's bass and Tony Maxwell's drumming, are ominous and lovely. Some of the songs are pure popsville -- the title track features tambourine and hand-claps straight out of the Archies and a "la-la-la" backing vocal that's either pure honeysuckle or sickening waxy yellow buildup, depending on which side of the bed you woke up on. Other songs have emotional complexity to spare. "I've never given back to you/All the shame you've put me through," Waronker sings on "Until the Day I Die," proving that That Dog aren't too young -- or too innocent -- for a good healthy round of accusations and self-recrimination.
But That Dog are at their best when they're wavering somewhere between adult responsibility and go-for-broke teenage romanticism. "We'll have lots of bail/tons of trail mix/'Cause we're setting out to sail courageously/you and me," Waronker sings on "I'm Gonna See You," sketching out the itinerary for two lovers on the lam, headed for big trouble or the Big Dipper, whichever they hit first. The song hinges on the idea that the monotony of married life sounds positively radiant when it's out of your reach: "I'm gonna see you in the morning/I'm gonna see you when you're uptight/I'm gonna see you when you're boring/I'm gonna see you every night." That idea sounds corny only if you're old and calcified enough to take it for granted, but That Dog reminds us that before you're old enough to make your own choices, life can be sheer hell -- and sheer bliss. The waiting may be the hardest part, but it's also, not surprisingly, the sweetest.