Daniel Zott and Josh Epstein teamed up in 2010 to form the Nascar suit-wearing, indie-pop playing duo known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. The Detroit, MI, residents wrote and recorded some tracks that year in Zott’s basement and assembled them into the Horse Power EP, released last July. The four-song album was drenched in sweet, soulful, guitar-based melodies and playful falsetto vocal harmonies. The music had a Beach Boys vibe, an idea reinforced by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s fourth and final cut on the EP, Brian Wilson and company’s “God Only Knows.”
Horse Power’s stripped-down, spacey reworking of the song was too true to the original to cause any outrage among Beach Boys fans. Much like Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s race-car getup and ridiculous name though, Zott and Epstein’s choice to do a cover—a cover of one of the best love songs in existence, no less—did little to reveal who they were or what their own music was about. The group has a habit of keeping listeners at arm’s length. But on It’s A Corporate World, the band’s debut LP, Zott and Epstein are ready to let you step a little further into their joyous sonic world.
Three of the EP’s songs—“Nothing But Our Love,” “Vocal Chords” and “Simple Girl”—feature on the full-length. And although It’s A Corporate World leaves out “God Only Knows,” it keeps that Beach Boys-ian feeling by including sounds that are buoyant but not shallow, simple but not simplistic. “Morning Thought” starts the album with scattered, twinkling synthesizers, drops of warped voice fragments and a dry beat that’s big and jolly enough to be a giant’s handclap. Zott and Epstein apart are all right vocalists, both equipped with warm, laid-back voices capable of delivering clean melodies. But they work better singing in tandem, whether doubling up on the same notes as on the opening of “Simple Girl” or harmonizing dreamily on “If It Wasn’t You.”
The album seamlessly bobs along through bright and tuneful songs flavored by quirky bits of electronics, but the flow is interrupted by “When I Open My Eyes.” The slowly creeping, stalker-like autobiography begins with “I don’t know where to start/I want to tear you apart” and gets eerier from there. Hearing this track in the midst of such a lighthearted pop environment feels about as natural as it would to have a scene from the 1990s stalker thriller Fear thrown into a John Hughes comedy.
Though Zott and Epstein did keep one cover off of their album, they do include another on It’s A Corporate World—“We Almost Lost Detroit” by the recently deceased Gil Scott-Heron. In their hands, the slowly grooving original gets sped up and finds the guys at their most passionate. The vocals get more animated, the guitars more straight-up rocking, as the duo sings about its hometown. It’s a moment that shows the group opening up and getting slightly more personal. The Scott-Heron cover lets Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. loosen up without losing control or baring its identity too much. The effect is similar to the one created by the band’s recent costume choice on this year’s tour: Zott and Epstein now ditch their Nascar suits at the start of their shows. But don’t worry, there’s not too much baring here either—the guys have on business suits underneath.