Considering how fickle and niche-oriented web-based music discussions have become, it's hard to fault an act for relying on shtick to gain some attention. But Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. may lay it on too thick. From their wink-and-nudge name and reputation for performing live in NASCAR jumpsuits to the Adbusters-ready title and deliberately square oil-portrait cover art of their debut, It's a Corporate World, the Detroit-based duo can come off as a couple of attention whores. That their music is so low-key and relatively unassuming only adds to the ironic remove.
However much Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s posturing might call their sincerity into question, they do know how to craft a pleasant little pop song. Drawing obvious influence from the last decade's biggest "indie" acts (the Shins, Hot Chip, Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, MGMT, among others), the duo has assembled songs that filter straightforward pop melodies, confessional folk-leaning lyrics, and quirky, electronic production flourishes through a more expensive, major-label recording process. Considering how accomplished It's a Corporate World sounds, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. isn't lamenting the corporate world too loudly.
Indeed, it's the album's production that carries it. Epstein and Zott have come up with a few standout melodies (most notably on "An Ugly Person on a Movie Screen" and "Nothing But Our Love"), but it's the multilayered production that makes most of the songs work. Opener "Morning Thought" is elevated by its double-tracked vocals and a hard, stomping rhythm section that gives weight to its simple "I'm thinkin' about it" hook. The title track actually makes the album's best use of the duo's deep well of irony, adding layer upon layer of production flourishes and reverb as they sing, "It's a corporate world/I'm a corporation, cutting back."
The songs themselves are generally slight: "Simple Girl" boasts a round of cheery whistling to enhance its "da-da-da" refrain, while "Skeletons" offers an accidental bit of auto-critique in the line, "Anything you say has already been said a million times before." However robust the melodies and intricate the production on It's a Corporate World may be, the album wants for real substance or innovation. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s dedication to branding has earned them plenty of attention, but on It's a Corporate World, their music too often feels like an afterthought.