Writers love to break bands. And while I'm certainly not the first to print the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., it sort of felt, Monday night at Mississippi Studios, like I was getting in on the ground floor.
Maybe it's a collective weariness towards all things Detroit—this proud band's hometown—a seemingly indomitable city built on blood and sweat that lies awake on life support today, that kept Portlanders from coming out to the band's show. Maybe listeners are confused by the name, unsure if it's a band or the third generation of a NASCAR legend. Maybe I'm lucky and have caught Daniel Zott and Josh Epstein before bigger labels and bigger venues surely do. Or maybe it was just Monday night.
As a formal introduction, I've included the band's set list fit with tasting notes. DEJJ has released only one album, It's A Corporate World, but its careful sampling, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and gooey pop make it an early contender for album of the year.
The walks on stage in NASCAR jumpsuits. Under the jumpsuits, actual suits, with vests and ties. On his way up, Epstein tells me he hasn't seen a crowd this small since they played Oxford, Mississippi (population 19,000). The song's dreamy vocal samples and scattered electronic sketches seem borrowed from a Jonsi track.
Grounded in a simple whistled melody and a foot-stompin', folk-tinged guitar riff, "Simple Girl" is inherently giddy. The duo's fondness for Brian Wilson shows here, as they trade vocal doos and dahs A few vocal loops and audio effects bubble beneath the surface throughout, per DEJJ custom (Epstein never strays too far from his soundboard).
"If It Wasn't You"
The prettiest song on the record features a gorgeous vocal dualism between Zott and Epstein. It bears a devil-on-one-shoulder-angel-on-the-other quality, with Epstein singing one thing and his conscience (Zott) telling him another. And so it builds, via big keyboard chords, swelling vocals and heaving percussion.
Riding newfound momentum, DEJJ slips into a few funky measures of Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place." Epstein is an entertainer, he has Motown in his blood.
"When I Open My Eyes"
Darker in sound and content, this track is hoisted up by some chilling electric piano and choir-boy samples. Epstein sings of the paranoia of working in corporate America, ever-concerned with the bottom line and fragile job security. "I'm gonna get fired for this," the chorus proclaims.
Backed by a bouncy bass line and marching percussion, "Vocal Chords" again showcases DEJJ's tremendous vocal partnership. Somehow, rock 'n' roll guitar lines befriend ambient keys, the occasional saxophone solo and some delightfully cheesy electronic tom-tom drums. Just about every audience member is now dancing.
"God Only Knows" (Beach Boys)
A strong cover of an even stronger Pet Sounds track. DEJJ customizes the Beach Boys hit with some Roy Orbison-inspired Les Paul strumming and a mild reggae interlude. Epstein thrives at his electronic command post, bolstering his vocals with layered reverberation. Instantly recognizable lyrics aside, the sound is modern and personalized, the ingredients for a great cover.
"It's A Corporate World"
The title track, played extra fast. Reminiscent of a Real Estate song on crack, this track still offers enough downtime for Epstein to pace thoughtfully on stage, microphone in hand. There's pent up hostility here and no escape valve, as in the corporate workplace.
"An Ugly Person On A Movie Screen"
Indie-pop at it's finest. Hooks abound and rich with wordless background warbling, it's more summery than Saturday morning cartoons.
"Higher Love" (Steve Winwood)
A brazen move. I never thought this song could be cool. I was wrong.
"We Almost Lost Detroit"(Gil Scott-Heron)
Epstein utilizes a heavy organ setting here, stamping the Gil Scott-Heron track with a psych-rock meets gospel brand. His Motown side comes to the fore again, and it has to in order to match Zott's raucous guitar interjections. Bits of the Black Keys can be heard, but DEJJ keeps it original by returning to playful melodies.
DEJJ playing the song on KEXP:
"Nothing But Our Love"
A fitting finale given the song's embodiment of everything DEJJ does well. Smart lyrics, quixotic keyboards, well-managed sampling, fuzzy guitar, glowing sonic themes, and the elegant harmonies of two generations ago. Back when Detroit was king.