Dog Problems sounds like Disney on crack -- which makes for one of the best albums of the summer.
I have a friend who absolutely adores the Format. She's quirky, acts a little bit ditzy, but she's still incredibly intelligent. She's a child at heart, though she's had more than her fair share of relationship problems, and her favorite movie is Aladdin. In other words, she's about as close as you can get to a personification of the Format's music.
The Phoenix duo first made a splash on its debut, Interventions and Lullabies, plumbing out upbeat yet surprisingly emotional power pop. Since then, they've gone through several record label problems, ultimately splitting with their original label over creative independence issues and releasing Dog Problems through their own Vanity label.
One listen shows why the major labels would have considered this album a major gamble; the hooky template remains, but the production has expanded radically. Horns abound, sugary Beatlesesque harmonies lace the songs, swelling strings kick in. In other words, it sounds like Disney -- on crack, and what's really surprising is that it doesn't crumble under all that feel-good weight. Ironically, it all sounds radio-ready in the most creative way imaginable.
A lot of what holds the music together comes from the singer Nate Reuss, whose voice is as nasally delightful as ever. "Can we take the next hour and talk about me?" he asks on "I'm Actual", the second track, and he does so -- extensively. Along the ride, he discusses corporate rock magazines, moving to the Ukraine, and one dysfunctional girlfriend in particular who seems to have eviscerated his heart. The lyrics are deceptively sharp in their wit, and the bitterness can sometimes be shocking, laid against the lighthearted bounce of the music. "Dog Problems", the best track on the album, doubles as both a circus song and a cutting portrait of a bitch, with a run-through of the alphabet to boot. It's so far off-kilter, and yet so effervescent, that you'd have to listen to really understand -- much like the rest of the album.
That's not to say the album never dips into the saccharine: by the time the album reaches "Snails" and "Inches and Failing", where the prevailing chorus sings "I love love / I love being in love", it's a little bit easy to become sick of all the overwhelming instrumentals. But elsewhere, there's still plenty of meaty power pop; "Time Bomb", especially, is the most addictive summer song you'll hear in some time, and shows off the group's Myspace satire skills: "Was it worth what you did to your wrists?" They even impressively channel the Strokes a bit in the album closer, "If Work Permits".
Unfortunately, one side effect of all the expanded production is that the more straight-arrow rock songs, like "The Compromise", sound like the edges have been sanded off; nothing quite lives up to the tight hookiness of "The First Single", and some of the endless procession of power pop songs, while all solid, end up bogging down the album.
But even with the occasional tedium, most of Dog Problems displays an effortlessly creative depth. It's right there along the great summer albums this year, and it's easily the best carnival one too.