Band with a goofy name creates a solid debut full of breezy, non-goofy pop songs, then cranks up the intensity for an ode to their hometown of Detroit.
On their debut album, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. create music that would be easy to categorize as indie-pop, except for two things. First, indie-pop is such a catch-all term at this point that it tells you almost nothing about what the music sounds like. Second, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was signed to Warner Bros. Records on the strength of their 2010 EP Horsepower, so they aren't independent at this point. Which leads us back around to describing their music. The band, actually a duo consisting of Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott, create a low-key, laid-back type of pop that relies a lot on keyboard sounds and live drums. Zott and Epstein are both strong singers, as well, and their vocal harmonizing sounds effortless and is a big key to their appeal.
It's a Corporate World opens with "Morning Thought", a wide-open, airy song driven by a big beat and sampled, fluttering "lalalala" backing vocals. Epstein and Zott also throw in a fuzzed-out bass, prominent guitars, and even a piano interlude. They contrast this big picture beginning with the next song, first single "Nothing But Our Love". While it retains a similar mid-tempo big beat feel, the rest of the track is far more introspective. Its lyrical refrain goes "Don't try / Don't try so hard / Love is easy", against organ chords and tinkling video game synths.
The band goes on to explore more facets of this low-key pop style. The super-catchy "Skeletons" bops along on jaunty, polyrhythmic tom-toms and acoustic guitar, while "An Ugly Person on a Movie Screen" sounds like a lost '70s pop-soul track. It isn't until It's a Corporate World's title track halfway through the album that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. show they have the ability or desire to really rock out. It's the first song on the disc that could be considered uptempo, and even when they turn up the guitars to chug along with the refrain, "It's a corporate world / I'm a corporation / Cutting back!", it still sounds like they're rocking in a polite, pop context. It's sort of like when Vampire Weekend attempts to cut loose.
Epstein and Zott immediately return to more laid-back songs, like the whistling-and-xylophone-driven "Simple Girl" and the breezy island vacation pop of "Vocal Chords". It's all catchy and pleasant and very nicely arranged. But It's a Corporate World actually hits something of a climax in its penultimate track, "We Almost Lost Detroit". You wouldn't know it from the NASCAR-winking name, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are actually from Detroit, and their urgency for the state of their hometown shines through in the song. A pounding beat, doubled in the bass, sets the foundation for the track, while distorted organ and crashing guitars add a layer of grit that reflects the desperate state of the city. The vocals have real passion, from the pleading chorus, "We almost lost Detroit / This time!" to the opening lines, "It stands out on the highway / Like a creature from another time". As good as most of the pop songs are on the album, "We Almost Lost Detroit" shows the duo have another gear and they can crank up the intensity if needed.
It's a Corporate World is a solid first full-length album that gets stronger the more you listen to it. Zott and Epstein have an ear for catchy, breezy pop songs and real skill with their vocal arrangements. As good as their pop songs are, though, the intensity behind "We Almost Lost Detroit" makes me wonder if they could be even better putting that amount of passion into all their music.