Review Summary: John Davis has a knack for broadly appealing pop, but his debut LP as Title Tracks feels stuck in the small-time.
I caught Title Tracks live by chance about a year ago when they played the last set of the Fort Reno outdoor concert series, a summertime tradition in Washington, DC. The hipster-ish audience had properly cogitated over the previous high-concept bands when Title Tracks started playing a slice of infectious pop as irresistible to the artistic set as it was to the passersby on the street. Soon enough, a few dozen people had gotten up from their blankets on the grass and started dancing together in front of the stage like they were all best friends. It was a memorable scene to see just about everyone letting loose so blissfully, but I’ll also remember it for one guy struggling to let down his guard: frontman John Davis.
Davis is not averse to this kind of setting. For years he was on drums for the notable post-hardcore outfit Q and Not U and briefly performed with Laura Burhenn in the indie pop project Georgie James. I didn’t necessarily need him to sell his music with a commanding stage presence that night, although that would have surely improved matters. Standing somewhat rigidly and giving only shy half-smiles early in the performance, Davis didn’t quite reflect the exuberance of his music that the rest of us were so charmed by. Regardless, I tracked down the debut LP It Was Easy
upon release six months later to see if the lack of confidence translated to the recorded medium. For all Davis’ skill in crafting tight and universal pop songs, It Was Easy
begs for a little more assertiveness at the helm.
As Title Tracks, Davis seems intent on playing his favorite kind of broad-appeal powerpop that was obscured in Q and Not U and perhaps not fully embraced in Georgie James. Surely songs like “Every Little Bit Hurts” and “Steady Love” are irresistible testaments to his impressive songcrafting. Each accomplishes what any proper pop song should: delivering an exceptional chorus and bouncing around in your head long after their three minutes are up.
A half dozen or so tracks prove Davis’ skill in melody, but they don’t always translate to successful pop. The aggravating jingle “Black Bubblegum” and the simplistic “No, Girl” feel overly deliberate in a quest for universal likeability. Painting more of the songs, unfortunately, is a lacking production quality. When Davis isn’t at his most convincing, the songs feel recorded on a tight budget when the sonic subject matter deserves much more. Within the context of fairly simple pop songs, muffled lyrics feel more like production flaws than stylistic choice. Perhaps it was too
The ultimate surprise on the record is two guest appearances by Tracyanne Campbell from renowned Scottish indie pop group Camera Obscura. She provides backing vocals on “No, Girl” and, much more noticeably, alongside Davis on a so-so cover of “Tougher Than the Rest”. (Campbell seems to be passing this around: Camera Obscura performed their own excellent cover earlier this year.) I don’t know how Campbell became familiar with Title Tracks, let alone decided to contribute vocals to them, but while it’s a pleasant addition, she’s ultimately not a game-changer here.
What may read and sound like an underwhelming debut I actually prefer to contextualize as a promising debut that’s just stumbling out of the gate. The album’s hooks, and Davis’ efficiency in cranking them out, are undeniable, but a brighter future would be characterized by a shoring up of production issues and incorporating a broader melodic palette so that each track isn’t a simple sink-or-swim pop song. Oh, and also, smile!