Judging by the Cover: The Format
The Vanity Label; 2006
If you just broke up with someone and you want to continue feeling miserable, listen to Bright Eyes. If you’d rather dance it off than sit in the corner and slit your wrists, listen to The Format’s “Dog Problems” and put away the razor.
Simply put, this album is catchy as hell. All the songs are wordy, but they’re executed with such great meter and rhythm that the vocals never sound crowded. It’s the poppy-est angst I’ve ever heard, filled with biting lines like “We’ll take our chances/ We’ll last a month / We’ll never speak again”, “Five years and you fell for a waiter / I’m sure he says he’s an actor”, “We know I can’t construct a poem / ‘Cause words like girls get bored and run”, and “See we break for the summers / so she can find lovers / She treats them like a bottle of wine.” I don’t know who this girl is that they’re trying to get over, but I don’t know how they survived her intact enough to make an album.
The lead vocalist is a bit of a cross between Jason Mraz and Keith Slettedahl from The 88. His voice is high without being nasally and annoying, but sometimes I feel it’s a little too controlled. He’s backed up throughout the album with classic pop harmonies, but unfortunately they’re predictable and fail to vary much.
In fact, that’s the problem with a good portion of the album. The standard upbeat-rock style of most of the songs is just too predictable to be memorable. Now I’m no snob –I admit that I’ll take catchy melodies and classic one-three-five chord progressions over Mozart any day. It’s just that The Format isn’t good enough at it.
It’s not that they aren’t good musicians, but their attempt at putting all their talent out at once has produced a result that is mediocre at worst and good at best. According to listener reviews on iTunes, their last album was mostly acoustic. I’ve never heard The Format before, but I think that they might have been better served to stick to the acoustic style their fans miss. There are so many different instruments on this album, and a lot of them are employed mostly for their novelty and not for their effect. The list on the album includes guitar, bass, drums, synth, piano, horns, harpsicord, doppler, cello, viola, violin, tuba, trombone, trumpet, French horn, clarinet, sax, Wurlitzer, claps, noise, and “fun instruments we had lying around”. Yeah, no kidding. As a result, everything is drowned out by excessive layering and it’s hard to even hear any of the instruments individually at all. It sounds like The Format should have spent less time in the studio and more time plotting revenge against girls.
There’s no doubt that these songs are a pleasure to listen to and sing along to, but only two of them really stand out. “She Doesn’t Get It” is everything that I complained about in the last two paragraphs. It’s predictable, it’s musically crowded, but this is one instance where they are redeemed by their apparently innate ability to write a ridiculously catchy song. I don’t know what it is—maybe it’s the Christmas bells (probably the only novelty instrument on the album that really stood out to me), maybe it’s the claps that I so recently mocked, or maybe it’s just that the chorus is so incredibly strong. It screams “single”. For reasons I couldn’t even tell you, I just think this is a great song.
The title track, “Dog Problems” is the best song on the album, hands-down. It’s The Format’s skilled lyricism at its best, and their words flow together effortlessly: “I smoke myself to sleep / and blame postmodern things I can’t relate / Like summer camp and coastal states/ Like alcohol and coffee beans/ Dance floors and magazines.” The song starts out slow but picks up quickly and turns into an upbeat vaudeville show-tune. The song slows down again in the middle to build up to an almost theatrical climax that swoops right back into the show-tune to the sounds of crowd cheering and applause. On this track, their excessive production actually works.
I have no complaints about The Format’s poppy melodies and vocals. I just wish they had kept it simpler. Maybe I should have listened to their earlier acoustic songs. If nothing else, “Dog Problems” will put you in a great mood, but it’s unlikely you’ll find this a standout album.
The Format - Matches
The Format - She Doesn't Get It
The Format - Dog Problems
- Stacey Capoot -
Previously on "Judging by the Cover": Of Montreal, Joanna Newsom
Tags: The Format, Dog Problems, Review, mp3