Dormlife - Mustard Is The New Ketchup
Record Label: Alarm Clock Records/Duckphone Records
Release Date: November 9, 2011
It may be a strange album title, but Dormlife is a strange band--one with jazzy keys and walking basslines, soulfully crooned vocals, and a drummer with his head and heart firmly rooted metal. So, appropriately enough, the group's bizarrely-named third outing is the most complete synthesis of everything they've attempted in the past, and the most consistent collection they've released to date.
Starting with "Scentse," one of the strongest songs the band has presented, the album immediately shows itself to be a different beast than its predecessors. The hooks are there, but they aren't as obviously poppy, and the song is dominated by tight vocal harmonies and a bouncing, propulsive rhythm section exhibition. "Oxygen" takes the jazz tendencies a step further, and while vocalist Samuel may be similar to Brandon Boyd on occasion, the song is the first time the comparison to Incubus has ever actually made sense. "Venom" is a quirky pop song peppered with spiteful one-liners ("If it's 1 AM then I expect you to be drunk in a bar somewhere I'm not"), punctuated by Phillip's impressive weaving bassline. "Cocaine" has the most digestible vocal hook in the collection, bolstered by subdued piano and blast beats--not a typical combination, but it works.
But beyond individual songs, Mustard works as an album. The songs don't rely on abrupt start-stop breaks as much as the group's previous albums did, allowing the songs room to stretch out and breathe. Furthermore, the album follows a very specific musical, if not lyrical, path, putting poppy songs next to jazzy numbers, upbeat tunes leading into ballads, so that the overall sense is one of unity but not of sameness. The acoustic guitar is ever-present, but takes a backseat to the rhythm section, and the inclusion of horns on a couple of tracks is very welcome, and the album is reminiscent of some of today's great pop songwriters--Ben Folds and Fountains Of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlessinger are only the most obvious comparisons. Even the album's misses are only a lyric here, a melodic fragment there, and even the album's weakest track ("The Sweetest of Slang") is endearing enough lyrically and intricate enough musically to remain utterly listenable.
It may not be a perfect album, but it's a shining star in the over-saturated Chicago music scene, an album that refuses to be pigeonholed not through relentless experimentation and avant-garde sensibilities, but through simply seeming unconcerned about classifications. At this point, it's fairly certain there is nothing truly new in pop and rock music; but even so, there aren't many bands like Dormlife, exhibiting both the musical skill and pop sensibility to deliver an album as calmly self-assured as Mustard Is The New Ketchup.