Monday, October 21, 2013

Album Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., 'The Speed of Things'

If you are at all familiar with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., than you are likely already enthralled with the complex combination of danceable beats, jazz instrumentation, heavy guitar, sometimes heart-sick-but-still-optimistic lyrics, and the clever under-layer of hip-hop harshness that make up their sound. Characteristically apparent in their sophomore release, 'The Speed of Things', DE Jr. Jr. manages to maintain the aforementioned sound, along with their well-known and admired Indie pop sensibilities, true talent, and rough-around-the-edges youthfulness. They've certainly matured as a band, including adding new member Jon Visger on keys and guitar. But don't worry, they haven't outgrown wearing matching outfits.    

As with 'It's a Corporate World', there are some inconsistencies in the tone and style of the songs album-wide, but I find the more I listen, and get to see them play live, the more I like the former dark horse contenders for favorite song. For example, for some reason it took me a long time to really locate and appreciate "We Almost Lost Detroit" from the debut album, and now that song is closer to an anthem for me. So it goes with 'The Speed of Things'. It's not all happy-go-lucky 80's pop - there are some serious lyrical turns, some slower jams, and voice-play that leave the listener curious about what lies beneath the hood of these Detroit rockers that seem to have them feeling melancholy, yet ready to dance.

I have a few immediate favorites on 'The Speed of Things' - some songs that stand out as too catchy not to hear on repeat, such as "Don't Tell Me", "Run", and the first single, "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't on the Dancefloor)". Others are slowly making headway into my "need to hear again immediately" list. A few of those newcomers such as "Knock Louder", "Hiding" and "A Haunting" are lyrically a bit more morose, so I didn't jump on them as quickly because honestly, I wanted to savor the upbeat tempo of the sugary pop hits. However, don't assume those songs fail to address serious subject matter too. "Run" and "War Zone" both mix metaphorical instances of love in the time of war (and a saxophone on the latter) while getting the listener into a danceable headspace.

This sense of duality is due in part to the varying talent and taste within frontmen Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott. While their particular cohabitation of interchangeable lead and backing vocals makes DE Jr. Jr. more engaging to get to know, it also makes them an easy target for critics who prefer the likes of Tears for Fears rather than Hall & Oates when seeking bands who feature duo leads. I prefer Hall & Oates anyway, they have slid into a classic sound cloud, and I imagine DE Jr. Jr. will get there too.

There's too much talent within the rest of the band (including the especially adorable drummer Mike Higgins) to back up the brilliance of the lead vocalists to see them fade away anytime soon. 'The Speed of Things' is just as agreeable for easy listening as it is for throwing a dance party. Friendship with Josh notwithstanding, I give it a 4 out of 5 stars.

If you get a chance, see them on this tour. I got to see them twice in as many weeks recently, and it helped to better understand some of the complexities not immediately apparent when listening to the album. What set list you get will depend greatly on the line-up of the show (i.e. if they are the opener or the headliner), and maybe on the mood of the band too. It's much more fun for them to play the danceable hits if they can sense that the audience wants to get down, and it gives Josh and excuse to jump into the crowd. I like it just fine whatever they feel like singing, as no matter what, they balance their ballads with their beats and it's guaranteed to be a fun time. Here's hoping they continue to cover Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody".

Tour dates are available here. If they are not coming your way, check out the video below for a slight nod to the Beastie Boys and a great play on words.

Images via Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Stepping Through My Shadow

I'm in the midst of a love affair with Tool; an ongoing and long, torrid affair, at that. It's not like this is new to me, I've been a Tool fan for a long time, but right now, all I want to do is sink into the darkness that surrounds this mind-blowing band and step through on the other side of the shadow

What's weird about this darkness is the lack of depression found here. I am comforted instead. I am motivated. I am incredibly turned on. I am reminded of friends who have come and gone who loved this place too. I dream of this kind of peace - where you know that the pieces fit and that you can come out whole again. Where the high-octane bass attaches itself to my bones, and because they are hollow, borrows the path to the rest of me. The troubling treble finds solace in my mind, and I can't help but close my eyes and sing. Sing. I do not sing unless alone, but when in love with Tool, I want to sing everywhere. 

Nothing rewards the heart like knowing that you can take a moment to try and trade it all in for a little peace of mind. Sometimes, I'd give anything for that little space, and Tool gives it to me. With Tool, I can manifest my fears and release them from hatred onto a path of forgiveness. What other band offers that kind of freedom? Critics claim that Tool's debut album Undertow has a "nihilistic yet wistful mood," which may be why I relate to the band in general. I'm no nihilist, but life is a constant stream of existential crises that require looking into the depths of nothing in order to find something. 

How's that for deep? Seriously though, when the need for self-exploration presents itself, a soundtrack of Tool suites the journey. Aenima allows for a new bass exploration with a new member of Tool, but does not disappoint my bones. Both the original "Push It" and the slow jam version that appears on the box set Salival, is heartbreaking. The kind of sadness that you must recover from in order to ever love again. The duality faced in this album allows your existential crisis room to traverse both your dark side and your light side and come out as your true Jedi-self. Maynard believes in redemption, and you can too.

Once you listen to these two epic albums, be sure to pay homage to early EP Opiate, to fall head over heels into "Part of Me" and the title piece, "Opiate", as well as later albums Lateralus and 10,000 Days. Those albums came out in the days in which Tool toured extensively again, and I wish I had been able to find myself in the crowd at one of those shows with my friends that did. Though Tool is not interested in posting their albums for free listening on sights like Spotify, Rdio, or even iTunes, you can often find several of the complete albums on YouTube, which makes my day when I am sitting idle and have no access to my iPod and need to immerse myself to come through whatever shadow is lurking. Don't tell Maynard though, he is pretty avid in his fight to keep the profits of being a musician with the music makers.     

If you're not sold on this, try out this adorable and amazing video of really talented kids covering "Forty-Six & Two." The whole band will blow your mind, but goddamn if the bass player doesn't give me more hope that we can - and will - survive all shadows.