Dag came out of nowhere in the early '90s. And they pretty much stayed there. Their first album, Righteous, looked for all intents and purposes like a Southern Rock album -- complete with a fuzzed-out picture of a young boy, arms outstretched, in a field; and pictures of the band in mid-stride, long hair waving, old T-shirts clinging to chests, frayed jeans hanging loosely off hips. Might as well have been Sister Hazel, except for a small sticker, with a quote credited to Vibe magazine: "The best funk album since 1978."
Maybe that's overstating things. But while there wasn't a "Freebird" on the record, there was plenty of groove, buckets of it. Righteous was a revelation, one that not many people picked up on, or even picked up.
After several years and a re-jiggered lineup, Dag are back with Apartment 635, an earnest attempt to cut away the more derivative bits of Righteous and find a signature Dag sound. That it succeeds isn't all good news.
Dag practice funk in a way no one else is really doing right now. There's nothing hybridized about it: It's not rap-funk or funk-metal or Red Hot Chili Peppers-style white-funk. If anything, it's bar-band funk -- poppy song structures with really tight grooves. There's very little of the meandering of a Dave Matthews or the scope of Parliament/Funkadelic. Instead it's compact, single-worthy songs -- they'd be radio-friendly if any radio station played anything like them.
The Dag sound -- now that they've found it -- is slick: Brian Dennis' taut guitar riffs, Jen Gunderman and Kai Kai Alexander's Dirty Mind-era keyboard bits mixed with electric piano, singer/bass player Bobby Patterson's reedy, able tenor and the tuned-snare sound of drummer Kenny Soule all work like a well-oiled machine. It doesn't quite wear thin over the album's ten songs -- even the ballads work, substituting actual feeling for schmaltz -- but you miss the Parade-era Prince pastiche of Righteous' "Do You Good" and the overt hints of Sly or Graham Central Station in other numbers. Without the shock of the familiar, Dag's new record isn't really ... shocking.
Still, Apartment 635 is far more than competent. Dag are probably doomed to never be much more than a very popular bar band, but the fault lies in their chosen field, not in their execution.