JR JR is a mediocre album from a band that’s never risen above that level.
The band formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. claims it changed its name to prevent NASCAR fans from attending their shows and complaining that they didn’t get to meet the real Dale Junior (who, according to ESPN The Magazine, likes his namesake band). It’s hard to believe that was the only contributing factor, given that when one googles the band’s original name the band’s page isn’t even the first result. Can JR JR survive without its gimmick and prove that it’s more than just a silly name? The new self-titled record doesn’t offer much hope. JR JR is the same technically proficient but mediocre band it’s always been, still frustratingly stuck between two genres that they just can’t let go of.
This indecisiveness wouldn’t be such a huge deal if these tracks had been merely bad. They nearly all have redeeming qualities; if the band could just commit to a single style or a genre, it might have been able to perfect it. Nowhere is this more obvious than on a track like “James Dean.” Though it’s a pretty electropop ballad with decent, relatable lyrics, the autotuned vocals kill what would have otherwise been a good track. Most of the other distinctly electronic elements on this record fall just as flat: “Break My Fall,” their attempt at social consciousness, is the most annoying track on the record, and minimalist pop pieces like “Caroline” and “Listening to Outkast, June 23, 2014” build to boisterous conclusions that are at odds with their soft, sweet beginnings.
However, JR JR isn’t totally a wash, its generic pleasures the kind of inoffensive music you might hear at Urban Outfitters. If the band wants to continue as an synth-pop group, there’s hope in tracks like lead single “Gone,” a sunny pop piece that complements to the end of summer. As it stands, the band seems at their most comfortable when they’re aping ’60s psychedelia, and vocalists Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein are able to put their gorgeous harmonies to tonally appropriate backings. Mid-record highlight “Philip the Engineer” has a fun Beatlesque piano part and vocals to match, and “In My Mind (Summertime)” has a catchy hook that it makes clear why anyone took them seriously as musicians.
In short, JR JR is a mediocre album from a band that’s never risen above that level, perhaps aside from the one time they covered Gil-Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Several songs here might been better placed on an EP, a format that Zott and Epstein have been happy to release in the past. Listening to this album is like panning for gold in a creek; maybe you’ll find a few shiny little rocks, but a whole lot of the dirt’s gonna float away when the wire hits the water.