Grand pop albums don't come along very often these days. Ornate, striking, Pet Sounds kind of pop albums. Whimsical, sweeping, and bold in musical statement and style pop albums. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that The Format, previously known for guitar driven records of well crafted and certainly well-written pop/pop rock songs, have conjured up a little something special with Dog Problems. And to say it is one of the years better and best recordings and a truly pleasurable listen would be an accurate statement, to say the least. Evolving far beyond where they started yet bringing the pop hooks, song craft, and lyrical goodness we have come to expect from this band, I no problem saying this album is a joy from beginning to end and certainly one of the years essential recordings.
The album starts on a whimsical note with the vignette song "Matches," which sounds like gentle carousel music until it finally gives way to the grand carousel sounds of the next track up, the ornate and carnival like "I'm Actual." The entire body of "I'm Actual" moves like a wave through the air and the listener can't help but be swept up in it's grandeur as the music drifts along like a breezy summer day to open the album. Taking this uplift to the next level for the next track, "Time Bomb" is a classic break-up song that allows you to sing and dance all over your heartache as well as exorcise it. "Oh no, was it worth it?" singer Nate Ruess starts with a towering choral vocal.. But it's not just Ruess here. Seemingly resurrecting the ghost of ELO with a full faux choir intro and a big sounding piano, bass, and drum treatment, this track soars from the start with propulsive beats and a strong rhythm. "Starting now I'm starting over/I'm gonna sleep with the next person I meet/You swore together forever/Now you're telling me lies" Reuss sings as the upbeat music softens the blows.
And that is one of the great gifts of the album as you will quickly discover. Full of heartache in places and hope in others, it never allows itself to get bogged down or become a downer despite the post break up blues of many of it's songs. "Five years and you fell for a waiter/I'm sure he says he's an actor/So you're acting like you never tried to take your life" Reuss bitterly spits, and to close the song "Oh no/Was it worth what you did to your wrists?" Certainly not faint of heart break-up stuff. And their is more to come. But the music is so jubilant you never notice. At least on first listen. And when you do, perhaps like the singer himself, you just keep moving on.
All this broken hearted pop goodness continues on the next track with the more stripped down "She Doesn't Get It" which adds tinkling/tubular bells to the musical mix and finds the singer going for one last night with someone much younger then him who says goodbye much easier than he ever could, claiming by songs end "I fall in love too quickly/Will you call/Will you write/I was the only one who got hurt." And although this may sound a bit emo at first blush, the skillful lyrics of Ruess and the maturity in the vocals which they are delivered suggest otherwise. Along with the heartfelt and driving pop music, lush atmospherics, and Pet Sounds/SgtPepper influences running throughout the album, this is nothing if not a mature
pop album for those who have stood in the singers heartbroken but still sturdy shoes. And who also appreciate a good pop hook delivered in a fresh and meaningful way. Truly delightful in each and every way.
And as if to drive the grand pop point home, to kick off the second half of the album we are treated to the everything but the kitchen sink title track "Dog Problems". Certainly the sad heart of this album the band nonetheless churns out a playful melody with brass, organ, piano, bells, small orchestra, and even a tuba while Ruess rolls off a litany of romantic complaints until the bridge of the song when all goes quiet. "Can you hear me/Are you listening/This is the sound of my heart breaking /And I hope it's entertaining/Cause for me it's a bitch" the singer softly croons into the mic. "Was it worth it/When you slept with him?" Reuss asks as soft cello and gentle piano play behind him, and then finally building to a bold crescendo and the dramatically sung lyric "Did you get it all out of your system?" letting the strong and confused music deliver the force of the sentiment before returning to the sing-song melody which had come before. And again, for listeners who has some experience under their belts this moment on record rings as true and emotionally bare as any you are likely to hear on any record this year. Simply marvelous storytelling and songwriting.
"Oceans" is up next and we're back on breezy pop ground once again with this song of longing for good times past that finds our loser in love wishing he could just loosen up, "shake some hands" and "fool everyone/just to start over again", all the while dreaming he were an ocean so that he might easily make it back to the one who "scarred" him. Confused, lost, and drifting seems to be the lyrical theme, even as the music leads us to a better place with it's crunchy guitar work and easy going harmonies. And we are once again struck by the perfect balance maintained both musical and lyrical by this band of mixed players and mixed musicians. And indeed although the band has expanded for this album to include many additional musicians, the recording is so perfectly uniform in it's delivery and intent it does indeed sound like the work of an ingenious few rather then the many it actually is.
Not all is perfect here though, and whether that is apparent only because of the brilliance which has come before or is simply a matter of fact is almost besides the point. As the album heads for home we are given the too ordinary for this album 'Dead End" which can't be saved despite it's Beach Boys inspired "ooh's" and "ah's" littered throughout the song and insightful if somewhat cliched lyrics. And wrapping things up we are given the overly bitter and somewhat musically underwhelming "If Work Permits", which is the longest song on the album by far and has a scattered and rushed feel about it. But those are but small niggles when sandwiched between these two songs we get the beautiful and elegant ode to life and love "Snails" with it's easy going melody and quaint approach to telling it's life lesson, and the bitter yet once again brilliantly uplifting "Inches And Falling". And although the lyrics are meant as a spite of sorts the chourus of "I love love/I love being in love/I don't care what it does to me" is sung with such verve and conviction we can't help but find a bit of hope in it's joyous statement. However false and fleeting that hope would seem to be.
It's obvious from this special recording bandleaders Nate Reuss and Sean Means know their influences and how to apply them. It's also apparent they aren't afraid to take risks in the studio with styles and recording techniques, and along with producer Steve McDonald (of Redd Cross infamy) have harvested all the fruit they could possibly pull from these torn and broken hearted vines. Whether this is a "no going back now record" in such an early career of this obviously talented group or simply a side step on what will be a narrower road ahead is not worth pondering. Call it indie or alt. Call it pop, pop-rock, or call it rock n roll. When it comes to Dog Problems it pays to not look too closely or examine too strictly. That would only serve to box it in. Wide open, fresh, and with a dynamic and spirited vision all it's own, Dog Problems gives lonesome lovers everywhere reason to tap their toes and hum a happy tune regardless of the tears falling from their eyes. And in a world of broken hearts on the mend and lost dreams to be found again it plays like the perfect soundtrack on a newly dawning day. Brian Wilson, take a bow.....