Contemporary pop acts have been mining the sonic archive of the ‘80s for awhile now. Glitzy synths, gated drums, and larger-than-life hooks crowd the airwaves as if every artist is embattled in a competition to write a modern-day soundtrack for The Breakfast Club. Because most mainstream acts have tried to capitalize on this ‘80s renaissance, it is incumbent for up-and-coming bands to try to find ways to separate themselves from the pack.
With their first three EPs, DWNTWN began generating buzz for such distinction. The trio of Jamie Leffler, Daniel Cepeda, and Daniel Vanchieri laid shoegaze-leaning dream pop on top of a country foundation, even including a banjo in the otherwise electronic dance single “Missing You”. Lyrically, Leffler lassoed the pained storytelling modes of traditional country, wrangling heartfelt narratives into the band’s maelstrom of pleasurable excess.
However, DWNTWN’s brand of dream pop on their debut full-length, Racing Time, does little to distinguish itself amidst the current surfeit of ‘80s era nostalgia pop. Before, their ethereal synth sheen belied the roots of Americana, resulting in an interesting juxtaposition between the superficial and the traditional, the synthetic and the organic. Although their debut contains traces of these elements, its all-in push for ‘80s atmospherics makes for a fairly uneven affair. As a result, the trio feels slightly unrooted, vulnerable to floating away in a sea of similar sounding artists.
Of course, this is isn’t to say that originality is the only measure of great music. To be sure, Racing Time offers a number of possible breakout hits. In fact, the first four songs on the album deliver on much of the band’s promise, as each track makes any borrowed sounds feel dynamic.
Album opener and single “Bloodshot Eyes” is a tremendous example of how to reinvigorate the familiar by following a formula perfected by Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff — simply throw as much energy into a song as possible. Careening sharp hooks and bombastic guitar lines into pastel soundscapes, the song moves at a vigorous pace. If Daniel Vanchieri’s drums drive everything forward, Leffler and Cepeda’s vocal interplay takes them into overdrive. In as much as the song will make you want to sing and dance, it might also make you want to cry, as melancholia lurks underneath the song’s sonic vibrancy. But singing about how “the sun won’t ever shine” has never felt so lively and optimistic.
The following track, “Love Someone”, shakes together another satisfying pop cocktail. With tastes of Chvrches, Talking Heads, and Carly Rae Jepsen, the song distils chopped vocal samples and thumbs of jangly guitar into pure pop with an ‘80s garnish. The Chvrches elements of “Love Someone” sediment with deeper emotional residue in “Drowning”, as the band descends into the angsty realm of a band like Pvris.
This anguish plunges to its furthest depths on “Fourteen”. On the song, Leffler addresses the loss of her father, former Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ bassist Howie Epstein who died of a heroin overdose when she was 14. Leffler’s lyrics burn with an emotional candidness: “Don’t know why but you’re on my mind / Thought a lot but never cried / Does it mean I’m empty inside / Or afraid of what I’d find? / Keep you locked up in my heart so tight / It’s the only way you’ll never die.” Through both the lyrics and music, you can really feel the bones of a country ballad under the flesh of a pop song.
The promise of Leffler’s balladeering continues on the following “Sticks & Stones”, but quickly falls short once the song reaches its chorus. Nuzzled by Leffler’s nimble falsetto, the verses and pre-chorus swaddle acoustic guitar and piano in blankets of reverb, only to build a contrived electronic soar into an EDM-lite chorus, complete with bursts and fizzles that sound like cheap fireworks. One wonders how the initial promise of the song could evaporate so suddenly.
Unfortunately, this is the case for the much of the remainder of the album. With the exception of “Lonely”, the rest of the album is a bland collection of middling midtempo tracks that lack the band’s previous urgency and emotional depth. The hooks are not as sharp and the music not as imaginative, relying on stock forms of dream pop. It’s as if DWNTWN wrote a tremendous EP, but ran out of ideas in trying to extend it into a full-length.
For example, although Leffler’s silken vocals tend to have an enveloping gracefulness, her dispassionate melody on the chorus of “Pioneer Square” only generates a sense of boredom, making an otherwise energetic track feel sluggish. Contrasting this vocal lethargy is the rather saccharine “la la las” of “Little Night Song”. Neither the drab nor the effervescent quite work, especially given that the music on both tracks remains largely uninspired — mere shallow ‘80s emulations.
After “Back & Forth”, a track that wilts more than it bounces, DWNTWN finally offers some reprieve in the form of “Lonely”, the album’s second single. Buoyed by Vanchieri’s propulsive drums, Leffler’s vocals soar over fields of echoing guitar and swelling synths, creating the first feelings of movement on the album’s stagnant second half. Unfortunately, it might be the case of too little too late.
Altogether, individual tracks exceed the album as a whole. “Bloodshot Eyes” has indelible mainstream potential, and “Fourteen” touches the recesses of the heart. But even as Racing Time showcases DWNTWN’s hook-driven pop sensibilities, it positions such displays on the played out stage of ‘80s emulation and in the less-than-stellar lighting of the album’s second half.