No Checkered Flag for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.-The Speed of Things-Warner Bros. Records-3 STARS

Courtesy Warner Bros.

It’s hard to keep a positive attitude when your city is infested with feral dogs and on the verge of liquidating its world-class art museum, but Detroit indie pop duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are doing just fine. Their sophomore release, “The Speed of Things,” is a mostly upbeat affair that largely maintains the vibe of their debut, 2011’s “It’s A Corporate World.”

They may have picked a bad release date, though: compared to recent pop releases by Chvrches, Haim, and Lorde, “The Speed of Things” feels somewhat pedestrian. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. manage to string together a good verse and chorus in the same track, it can absolutely hang with those aforementioned acts. However, on “The Speed of Things,” this is the exception, not the rule. Although charming and expertly produced, “The Speed of Things” is ultimately an album with lots of frustratingly inconsistent songs and too few excellent ones.

As was the case with “It’s A Corporate World,” the strength of “The Speed of Things” is its top-notch and sonically varied production. From the manic rhythmic shuffle that drives “Mesopotamia” to the swerving, sultry vibes of lead single “If You Didn’t See Me [You Weren’t On the Dancefloor],” the production on “The Speed of Things” is quirky and accessible and thus avoiding the stylistic repetitiveness that can make a lot of pop albums unbearable to listen to in a single sitting. Furthermore, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. have a great knack for introducing subtle textures that add an extra layer of complexity to their music without crowding it too much--for example, the reverberating guitar lines that amble throughout "Run".


If only they were working with better songs. There are some great songs on “The Speed of Things,” but they’re far outnumbered by great moments in mediocre songs. Inconsistency within songs plagues the album “Don’t Tell Me,” for example, starts off with an infectious, danceable verse, but instead of taking that energy up a level, the stagnant chorus completely stalls its momentum. It’s the same story with “Hiding” and “Knock Louder.” Listen, no one’s expecting “Since U Been Gone,” but pop music’s supposed to be catchy. You’re supposed to want to sing along to it. Instead, “The Speed of Things” is full of melodically conservative choruses that rarely stray outside an octave range.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. aren’t exactly successful when they try to stray outside the boundaries of pop, either. Most of the non-pop songs on “The Speed of Things” are either derivative or forgettable. For example, “Dark Water,” though not a bad song, shamelessly appropriates Andrew Bird’s trademark whistling and chromatic string accents to such an extent that it becomes incredibly distracting. Elsewhere on the album, the band spends over 10 minutes drudging through the floundering tracks “I Can’t Help It” and “A Haunting” as well as a dreary reprise of album opener “Beautiful Dream.” These songs aren’t necessarily bad because they’re slow; they’re just bad.

That being said, when the songs on “The Speed of Things” work, they work really well.  The fantastic “Run” rapidly builds around a high-octane chorus, a delightfully unexpected double key change, and some dark lyrics if you pay attention: “He said: I got a secret room where I can be myself with someone I’ve rented / He said: the only thing that really gets me off is painful enough to feel pleasure.” The aforementioned “If You Didn’t See Me” is one of the best pop songs released in recent memory, striking a strange and wonderful balance between sexy and saccharine.

“The Speed of Things” makes for a frustrating listen, because it feels like it could have been a much better album: it misses a lot of opportunities and squanders a lot of production masterpieces with subpar songwriting. At this pace, though, even if Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. never release a great album, they’re going to have one hell of a greatest hits album by the time they’re done.

—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at