From the band name to reports that they wear NASCAR jumpsuits onstage to the cheesy portrait cover of their debut, It’s a Corporate World, everything about Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. screams schtick. Everything, that is, except their music. While every other aspect of the band’s persona is screaming for attention, the band’s sound instead relies on Death Cab for Cutie, Hot Chip, and Sufjan Stevens touchpoints to convey a softer image than all that southern-fried, car-racing bravado might suggest.
Detroit’s Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott garnered some praise for their first release (2010’s stuck-to-the-theme-titled Horsepower EP), their psychedelic indie pop relished in soft, electronic washes, and their cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” showed similar interest in a cutesy attitude. It’s a Corporate World does show growth in terms of songwriting and recording mastery, and it definitely doesn’t push far from those same influences and stylistics. Album opener “Morning Thought” flutters together on moth-winged electronic drums and synth shambles, vocal harmonies filigreeing the background. “Nothing But Our Love” follows, sliding through like maple syrup that’s been laced with another few dozen pounds of sugar.
“Skeletons” is perhaps the most interesting track of the bunch, combining the darkly sweet pop lyrics and vocals of Nick Thorburn’s work with Islands, Devendra Banhart’s weird0-folk melodies, the tribal drumming and wordless vocal interplay of early Animal Collective, and an Andrew Bird-y whistling outro. Things return to the funky pretty quickly, “An Ugly Person on the Movie Screen” combining stutter-step electronic drums and mellow, melancholic vocal delivery dancing about.
The ricocheting title track suffers from a lack of intensity, plunking synths overpowering the ramping guitar, and the drums played equally quietly. Turned into a rock track, it would be a pretty strong anthem, but as it is, it falls flat. The Beatles-pop of “Simple Girl” follows, surprisingly, genres blending and drying up at the drop of a hat.
In the end, the flashes of excellent technical choices, strong pop songwriting, and interesting directional changes outnumber the missteps. However, a fair amount of the content on the debut can be summarized as dull or even expected. That said, this is a solid pop record, and one that should find an audience, namely the same audience that found the band’s biggest influences.