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Originally published Friday, August 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch

Moondoggies: 1 giant CD, 14 great songs

The 14 songs on the Moondoggies' debut, "Don't Be a Stranger," add up to a total of 55 minutes — about two and a half songs too many. But one song at a time, the album is brilliant.

Special to The Seattle Times

On the Internet

The Moondoggies: www.myspace.com/themoondoggies

Nightclub preview

The Moondoggies

Album-release party with Grant Olsen of Arthur & Yu, Whalebones and Genepool, 9 p.m. Thursday at the Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; $8 (206-789-3599 or tractortavern.ypguides.net).

Too much of a good thing happens. With music, ear fatigue sets in, songs are skipped, CDs ejected. In rare cases, though, too much of a good thing turns out to be a great thing when the good thing is so damn good that even too much is not enough.

The 14 songs on the Moondoggies' debut, "Don't Be a Stranger," add up to a total of 55 minutes — about two and a half songs too many, too long to absorb in one sitting. Before you get to the final song, the glorious, gospel-ish "I Want You to Know," you will probably either leave your apartment or arrive at wherever it is you're going and have to turn off the music.

"It definitely feels like an hour, the times we've sat down and listened to it," says bandleader Kevin Murphy, taking a break from baking cookies at Caffe Ladro. "We recorded 22 songs, and it was one of those things where it was hard to cut. You just click over songs, I guess."

This is the reality of the MP3 age. In the end, skipping around the album might be OK.

"There are albums I've put on when I'm going to bed to fall asleep to and for weeks not heard the last song," Murphy continues. "I had a tape when I was little of [Nirvana's] "Nevermind," and I'd always fall asleep at the 'On a Plain' song. It was four months before I was awake for the last two songs."

One song at a time, "Don't Be a Stranger" — set for release this Tuesday on Hardly Art — is brilliant, each gem deserving a number in the Great American Jukebox. Like predecessors the Band, the Grateful Dead and Crazy Horse, the Moondoggies (Murphy plus Robert Terreberry on bass, Carl Dahlen on drums and Caleb Quick on keyboards) make motion music, a harmonious fusion of Southern soul, cosmic country and blue-blood rock, perfect for driving through the lonesome crowded West. Nothing of their rollicking, fifth-gear overdrive is lost in the translation from stage to studio. Old favorites like "Black Shoe" and "Night and Day" are juke-joint mug-swinging singalongs. In contrast, songs that don't get played live — like the traditional, piano-and-handclap "Jesus on the Mainline" and solemn "The Undertaker" — are haunting and downtrodden, flush with the blues.

You look at song titles like "Ain't No Lord" and "Save My Soul," hear lyrics like "I'm goin' down to die" and "I wanna believe in something bigger than me" and think, are the Moondoggies religious? Obsessed with death?

"One of my favorite Jack Kerouac quotes was from when he was writing 'On the Road,' " Murphys says. "Someone asked him why he wrote the book and he said, 'Because we're all gonna die.' It's just trying to get out as much as you can before it happens. It's not being preoccupied with death, it's acknowledging the fact and not feeling like it's a drag."

As far as searching for salvation: "[The band was] all raised with the same kind of Christian upbringing, and we're kind of moving away from that. I'm kind of agnostic, but I definitely tend toward some spiritual feelings. It's more a desperation, I think, when people are feeling kind of down — the old, old blues, singing about Jesus. I like songs where there's that desperate plea, that old stuff. There's a lot of hope in that, too."

As much as they're meaningful, the lyrics serve a bigger purpose: They are the vehicle for the Moondoggies' triple-throated, wall-of-sound vocals. They are suggestive declarations — "All night long!" "I don't feel like changing!" "Moonlight in your eyes!" — sung with earnest, heart-swollen joy. And of earnest, heart-swollen joy there can never be too much.

Jeez! This week's must-see shows all go down tonight:

• Portland-via-Alaska quartet Portugal. The Man unleashes mad disco-prog genius at El Corazon (7 p.m., $15, all-ages).

• Local schlock-rocking hip-hop crew Champagne Champagne tag teams with Cancer Rising at the Sunset Tavern (10 p.m., $8).

• Anacortes' lo-fidelity all-stars, Karl Blau and Mt. Eerie, serenade the Vera Project (7:30 p.m., $7, all-ages).

• Electroacoustic digi-jazz alchemist eR DoN defies all genrefication celebrating the release of his album "Subroutines" at the Lo-Fi Performance Gallery (9 p.m., $7).

Jonathan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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