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.

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