Pop sound tinged with heartbreak

(originally published Dec. 14, 2006)

Every once in a while, an album comes out of nowhere, making you wonder where it came from, what facilitated its creation and how it could possibly ring so true.

That’s the case with “Dog Problems” by The Format, an Arizona-based band that’s one of the opening acts for All-American Rejects next week at Champaign’s Assembly Hall. The album has been greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews as writers struggle to accurately describe the sounds in this pop offering.

Beatles. Beach Boys. The Zombies. Supertramp. Queen. Raspberries.

Dwight Twilley. Barenaked Ladies. The Shins. Sufjan Stevens.

“Pet Sounds.” “Abbey Road.” “Band on the Run.” “The Soft Bulletin.”

Those comparisons are all accurate, but “Dog Format” is both less and more than any combination of the above.

The album is about the disintegration of a five-year relationship.

Singer Nate Reuss and his girlfriend bought a dog after each of their break-ups. (Hence the title. One of the dogs ran away and is referenced on the song “Snails.”) The album’s 12 songs deal with the affair in retrospect, with all of the guilt, accusations, recriminations and regret in place.

And it’s all wrapped with a clever, melodic bow. That’s where the “Pet Sounds” and Zombies comparisons come in. It’s not necessarily that The Format sounds like that album and band. It’s that the style is similar, the feel is the same.

This is a cerebral effort, but many listeners will simply get an hour of enjoyable pop music out of it. And that’s fine.

Like The Beach Boys and The Zombies before them, early-20-somethings Nate Reuss and Sam Means have created a mature album that deals with timeless issues of love gained and lost. Yet they didn’t forget to have some fun in the meantime, creating catchy melodies that often bury the lyrics’ bleakness.

There are details so personal yet so perfect, it’s sometimes painful to listen. (“This is the sound of my heart breaking, and I hope it’s entertaining,” Reuss sings on the title track.) Reuss and Means have an eye for specific details that let listeners know what they’re saying, even without necessarily experiencing it.

In the album’s first song, “Matches,” the singer discovers a jacket he never wore, but recalls “it once kept you warm.” He finds matches in the pocket, but at by the end of the song, he finds he “made a wish, but the match never lit.” Musically, a calliope plays in the background.

This isn’t your standard-issue emo album.

“Time Bomb” is a hit single is a parallel universe, the centerpiece of the album, the place where the concept is cemented. The boy complains that the girl – who at one point we’re told has attempted suicide – “swore ‘together forever’,” but she clearly has “no concept of time.”

Later in the song, she returns, and he observes, “You’re just in time to wreck my life.”

But it’s not as though the album is dour. Many could listen to “Time Bomb” and not gather the bitterness. The juxtaposition of dark lyrics and upbeat music adds to the depth.

So does a sense of humor. The title track owes more than a little bit to Queen; Reuss has the vocal chops to at least echo Queen singer Freddie Mercury, if not match him. And Reuss also has the love of the studio to sit and overlay vocal track upon vocal track to mimic Queen’s (and/or The Beach Boys’) falsetto choir sound.

In fact, in a clever, low-budget video for the track, the Queen joke is played out hilariously. The lead “character” in the video is a hand. That’s right, a hand, making movements in sync with the vocal. (Atop the second knuckle is a small replica of Reuss’ trademark hat.) When the song builds to its Queen-like choir peak, three more hands appear – looking like a poor man’s version of the famous shot of the group that opens the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video.

(And in a comic but eerie callback to the girl’s suicide attempt, in one shot in the video, there’s a Band-Aid on the wrist of the “singer.”)

Yet The Format’s album is definitely modern. In the title track, Reuss takes a shot at the MySpace generation, singing, “But boys in swooping haircuts are bringing me down/Taking pictures of themselves.”

In “Inches and Falling,” there’s a more-than-passing reference to “Playground in My Mind,” a coy hit from 1973 known best for its chorus of “My name is Michael, I’ve got a nickel -” Yet the sing-songy tone of The Format song masks a deeply cynical set of lyrics, where a pilled-up singer accuses his departed lover of looking for someone else who “can treat you wrong.”

And by the end of the album, the singer has found the ultimate in anger, despair and revenge. “If she seems as lonely as me, let her sink, let her sink, let her sink.”

Concept albums aren’t cool, and they may even be an anachronism in today’s iPod, single-song, downloading culture. A number of The Format’s songs work as individual tunes (“Time Bomb” in particular), but the album has a powerful impact as a unit.

“Dog Problems” was a gutsy chance for the band to take. It’s a gamble that pays off again and again, especially for the listener.

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