The Detroit-based duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott) is hard to classify. The label calls them “indie-pop.” If you were going to coin one of those annoying, overused and mostly meaningless genre mashups writers like to coin for music outside an easy to draw frame, you might call them indie-alt-digital-folk-garage-rock-pop. Regardless of what you call them, you can feel how much fun they’re having the whole time, and just like laughter or Hep C, it’s highly contagious.
Their debut album, It’s a Corporate World, comes across as an extended, full-length version of last July’s Horse Power EP more than it does something completely new, both sonically and because it includes all three of the EP’s original tracks (omitting only their worth-buying cover of “God Only Knows”). Given that all three tracks are solid and also a perfect fit, it’s no wonder they used up a quarter of the album to include them. “Vocal Chords” was easily one of last summer’s defining songs, a heady brew of vocals that beam like high-noon sun during their choral peaks, the marching thump of a drum machine and plenty of dancing digital distractions. “Nothing but Our Love” and “Simple Girl” set the diametric ends of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. experience, the former a mix of slow-machined drums and R2D2 on back-up vocals, the latter a well-crafted piece of indie-pop, with enough finger picking, electric keys, whistling and da-da-da-ing to make a death row inmate crack a smile.
As for the new material, when it works it’s two guys who aren’t just on the same page, but the same syllable. The first single, and first song on the album, “Morning Thought,” is a full-sailed exampled of how good Epstein and Zott are when all the little pieces come together, turning a cacophony of sounds that alone mean nothing, into music. “Skeletons” is a simple and sweet song; the vocals echo in an expanse that reminds us of any of Detroit’s dozens of empty factories set against a contradictory backdrop of simple drums and the tandems’ own looping vocals and lively whistles. “An Ugly Person On a Movie Screen” is a playful little piece of candy-coated pop and if I were a NASCAR driver, and if NASCAR drivers got to play a song when they walked out to their cars, their take on Gil Scott-Heron’s “Almost Lost Detroit” would be it, a big soulful track roughed with shards of rock.
Overall, it’s an album full of songs Lloyd Dobler could have played during his window-call, boom-box confession of love. If he had, there’s a good chance that movie might have had an even happier ending.