Minnesota’s Motion City Soundtrack is sometimes labeled as emo, sometimes as pop-punk. But their major-label debut, My Dinosaur Life, only sounds like either of those genres in their slickest, most radio-friendly incarnations: Think Jimmy Eat World’s Warning, or, consistent with the band’s Minneapolis lineage, the Replacements’s Pleased to Meet Me. But whereas each one of those albums elicited charges of selling-out, Motion City Soundtrack has never aspired to make anything besides bright, melody-driven rock. For the most part, My Dinosaur Life consists of power-pop in the proud tradition of Cheap Trick and Fountains of Wayne. Sure, there’s a fair amount of distortion on the guitars and a disposition toward flurries of fast-paced power chords, but the band also comes equipped with a dedicated Moog player, all the better for drenching the soaring choruses of tunes like “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” in radio-rock Day-Glo.
But the quintet’s secret weapon has always been vocalist Justin Pierre, who never sounds better than when using his silky tenor to race through a wordy verse, ping-ponging between high and higher notes as he delivers lines replete with references to slasher flicks, old cartoons, and The Legend of Zelda. More than exercises in cheeky nostalgia, the riffing works in the context of Pierre’s stories: He is, at the end of the day, just a geeky, good-natured slacker, and so it makes sense that he’d relate his struggles with ample doses of pop-culture name-checking. On “Worker Bee,” his self-improvement regime involves selling the X-Box, packing up the pot, and enrolling in an online language course; on the jaunty chorus to “@!#/@!,” he issues an earnest tell-off to some unnamed haters: “You all need to go away/You motherfuckers need to leave me and my sensitive homeboys alone.”
The fact that the band is so likeable makes the dud tracks easier to tolerate, but a few too many bland choruses hamper the album’s momentum, particularly in its second half. More often than not, the jaunty, breathless verses are actually more fun than the generic, sing-along refrains. It’s the exceptional tracks (the standout “Disappear” and the aforementioned “Her Words” and “@1#?@!”) where the chorus actually delivers on the giddy momentum of the verses, but, to the band’s credit, they hit each of those numbers entirely out of the park. Taking on the whole album without the aid of the skip button is likely to leave one feeling over-caffeinated and under-stimulated; you’re better off going straight to the highlights, which are so generously hook-laden as to withstand any number of compulsive replays. With any luck, the band’s big-studio backing will find those winning tunes a home on the radio, as power-pop this well crafted surely deserves a little Top 40 success.