Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. released their debut record It's A Corporate World to decent reviews in 2011. The colorfully dressed duo from Detriot, made up of Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott, churns out a blend of texturized, hook-laden folktronica. Their newest release, The Speed of Things, which came out Wednesday, mostly delivers more of the same. The 13-song LP — the title of which stems from Epstein's musings on the breakneck speed of the digital age — is full of breezy melodies, ebullient lyricism, and poppy harmonies.
Despite its indie trappings, the band has strong pop sensibilities. As a result, it immediately communicates its joyful intentions. The opening track, "Beautiful Dream," sets the tone for the whole album. The song is a cheerful but yearning love song reminiscent of It's A Corporate World's first single, "Morning Thought." The album tends to shift between more danceable, tight electronic numbers and wide-open synth tracks. "Run" is a key example of the former. It begins by twisting the closing arpeggios of "Beautiful Dream" into something glitchier and more exciting; it sounds like the record waking up. The group is well loved for big melodies and dense harmonies that are reminiscent of Brian Wilson's. Their indie-pop influences and penchant for cheery, complex arrangements makes them most similar to groups like Of Montreal, and their helium-headed melodies make them ideal for the followers of groups like Portugal. The Man and Passion Pit.
Where they deviate, though, is in their sonic experimentation. More than most of the indie-pop crowd, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is committed to building genuinely odd soundscapes. "Mesopotamia" is built off two interlocking drum kits panned in hard stereo, so each ear gets the beat of a different drum. The group holds the center of the mix with a memorable melody and synth textures that never fail to grab attention. The Speed of Things has its share of hard-hitting, in-your-face pop declarations, like "Hiding," but the diversity of songs across the album keeps it gripping and alluring.
In fact, that's the records only serious downside. At times, it can feel like a bit much. For example, the album is divided by a soulful yet somewhat unnecessary reprise, "Beautiful Dream (Reprise)," which plays more like a demo than an actual finished song. Of course, excess can be a strength in pop music. With a glorious vocal hook taken from the playbook of Hall & Oates, "Don't Tell Me" stands as a likely follow-up to the record's first single, "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't On the Dancefloor)," a fantastically catchy tune already getting national radio play.
A sophomore album is often viewed as a make-or-break moment for a band, a chance to craft a new sound or solidify an identity. With The Speed of Things, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. opt for the latter. They follow much the same formula of It's A Corporate World, though, notably, they employ a more advanced and nuanced recipe. The album exhibits moments of brilliance and a serious knowledge of pop history, as well as an apparent eagerness to push boundaries. It has fewer of the borderline-twee, lackadaisical moments found throughout It's A Corporate World, a sign that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are perhaps taking themselves more seriously. All in all, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. have made a worthy record that should generate some well-deserved buzz. The Speed of Things marks a fresh addition to the indie-pop world, and a welcomed progression for the duo that shows that, as of now, they're moving at just the right pace.