It’s been a long four years since the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. rebranded themselves simply as JR JR and released their self-titled third album for major label behemoth Warner Bros. After finishing up the album cycle for JR JR, founders Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott started on another set of songs, eventually recording an eight-song album by the end of 2016. But according to JR JR, Warner Bros. heard the songs, decided that they were too dark to get airplay, and secretly refused to promote any of the material to media or radio. Once the band became aware of this, they began the long, arduous process of getting out of their major label contract.
That goes a long way to explaining why the break between records was longer than usual for the duo, and also why Invocations/Conversations is a double album. Invocations is the original set of tracks that Warner Bros. tacitly rejected, while Conversations is essentially the next album, written in the long interim while JR JR were getting away from one record company and starting up a label of their own.
Both records feature the same qualities that have always made JR JR appealing. The songs have catchy melodies, and the instrumentation leans toward bloopy electronics while still employing enough guitar, bass, and drums to be referred to as “indie pop” credibly. Auditorily there isn’t much difference, except that Invocations used the musicians from the JR JR tour, and Conversations was largely recorded by just Epstein and Zott.
Listening to Invocations, one can kind of see where Warner Bros. was coming from if you squint your ears enough. Some of these songs are kind of downers, lyrically, but it’s not like pop musicians have never had hits with downbeat lyrics and upbeat music. Quality-wise, though, this is good stuff. The slightly funky, low-key soul of opener “Day In Day Out” has some great chorus harmonies even though it lays back instead of pushing the big hook. Lyrically it’s a lost love song, about wandering around in a daze, missing someone. The acoustic guitar-based ballad “Pull You Close” is almost like an ’80s slow dance song without the production sheen. Piano and subtle synths back up the guitar, but the tender harmony vocals are what sells the song.
When JR JR dives into soul and R&B with more gusto, however, they struggle. “Holding On” attempts a mid-tempo soul song, complete with an intense chorus that relies on a strong vocal delivery. And while Epstein and Zott are solid singers for indie pop, neither of them have the vocal power to really pull this song off. “Twice as Hard”, on the other hand, is a synthy R&B song that could’ve almost passed for a Kaytranada track back when this album was originally intended to be released. But it ends up feeling just a little limp, once again because the vocal delivery isn’t quite there and the music doesn’t quite make up for it.
On the other hand, when the band goes back to their wheelhouse with “Wild Child”, a fast, energetic indie pop song, it’s catchy and fun, and the vocals work completely. Same with the “Won’t Last Long”, which features a wonderful rhythm section groove and a vocal hook that really works. And then there’s “All Around You”, the record’s second track. This song is so clearly the single that it’s baffling that the label people at Warner Bros. didn’t latch onto it. It has a huge beat that also manages to be laid back. It has a giant sing-along chorus that goes, “Don’t you know love / Is all around you, baby?” It even has a bridge-cum-outro that manages to go from hip-hop to driving rock. It’s great, and maybe all it needed was a final return to the chorus to be an easy viral hit. Oh well.
Conversations doesn’t show the passage of time, at least not in any obvious sonic or lyrical way. The relaxed “NYC” opens the record with what seems like the umpteenth pop music love letter to New York City. The band uses two-part harmony throughout the song, along with a fat bass tone and easygoing but steady drums. But the lyrics are more ambivalent about the city than most, with a chorus that warns, “NYC is coming at you / Lock your doors.” The second track on this one is also a big, catchy single. “Low” uses a simple drumbeat and a bouncy dual synth line as its bed. And once it hits the vocoder-assisted chorus, “I’m running / I’m running / I’m running / I’m running / I’m running / I’m running low,” the song is already stuck in your head.
As for genre experimentation this time, JR JR opts to try their hand at mixing Elton John-esque piano balladry and rootsy Americana with “Big Bear Mountain”. Somewhat surprisingly, they manage to pull it off. Earnest folk-style vocals work quite well for Epstein and Zott and going all-in on warm piano chords and acoustic guitar while using the synths judiciously makes for a nice package. There’s also “Bad Dreams”, which goes for a wide-open, Nordic folk-pop style. And it sounds like Of Monsters and Men meet Jonsí, with big percussion and simple but effective synth lines, plus some soaring vocals completing the sound.
Conversations‘ version of a banger is “RIP RnR”, a driving pop song about how rock and roll is dead. Lyrically it throws in a sentiment familiar to any longtime rock fans, “Maybe digital is better, but it’s got less feel.” But the song’s core line is, “Raise a toast / To rock and roll, and its holy ghost.” It’s hard to tell how much JR JR is playing around or serious with this song, but it’s a lot of fun regardless.
The album also has a pair of songs that fit snugly into JR JR’s traditional synthy indie pop milieu. “Dumb Myself Down” has quiet verses with limited instrumentation, but bursts into a chorus dominated by loud, obnoxious synth tones. And then it hits an extended bridge where Epstein sings his self-aware complaints about how obnoxious the chorus is. It starts, “Don’t stop listening / Don’t stop listening / ‘Cause I’m coming to a point, I swear,” and continues from there. “Young Forever” pushes a huge chorus with equally catchy vocal and synth hooks while the verses bounce along with a nice lope. Like “Dumb Myself Down”, it features an excellent bridge, this time without the self-deprecation. Instead, it just drops the musical motion and gradually builds it back up to a final full-throated run through of the refrain.
If I were going to pick one, I’d say that Conversations has a slight quality edge of the two records, but both are solid indie synthpop. And although this is technically a double album, much like Vampire Weekend’s recent Father of the Bride, it’s a very 2019 version of the double album. It runs just under an hour, with 16 total songs, and each record is right about 30 minutes long. It’s one of the most easily digestible double albums ever released and not much of a strain on 21st-century attention spans. Both records are a lot of fun to listen to, and it’s worth spending an hour to hear what JR JR have been up to during their unintentional hiatus.