It Was Easy
(Ernest Jenning Record Co.; 2010)
By Lindsay Zoladz | 17 February 2010
The DC scene has so long been tied to words like “fury,” “intensity,” and even “anger,” that its current state almost feels inevitable: it is a city finding novel refreshment in the act of unclenching its fist. DC stalwart John Davis embodies this sort of career trajectory; starting the decade playing drums for the late, sometimes-spazzy post-hardcore outfit Q and Not U before forming the power-pop duo Georgie James, he’s now the principle member of another power-pop band called Title Tracks. Those squinting to see a narrative could draw conclusions about a city liberating itself from an immortalized past, trading in the requisite throaty yells for glossy melody and pastoral power chords. But, much to the chagrin of critics and sweeping, generalizing narrative enthusiasts, DC is a city—much like many others at the moment—whose current musical identity resists being restricted to an easy story. Ask five people about the current “DC sound” and you’ll get five different answers, four of which will probably be variations on a guffaw at the suggestion that such a thing even exists.
The infectious hooks scattered throughout It Was Easy, Title Tracks’ Dischord debut, are not rooted in DC history, instead indebted to the mighty deities of guitar pop past and present. The record flashes its most promising cards up front: opener “Every Little Bit Hurts” is a near-perfect three-minute nugget of jangle pop that hits every mark I want it to like clockwork. Palm-muted, taut guitars that explode into shimmers as soon as the chorus hits? Hooks sung through a tiny, Elvis Costello-shaped hole in the nose? An immaculately timed drum fill during the bridge? Check, check, check.
Unfortunately, “Every Little Bit Hurts” is not so much a prediction of what’s to come as it is the album’s early peak. When he unplugs the shimmering guitars and slows his hooks to half-speed, Davis is a dead ringer for A.C. Newman, though even a deftly placed Neko Case backing vocal wouldn’t be able to save the grating and excessively saccharine “Black Bubblegum.” The tedium of tracks like “Tougher Than the Rest” and “No, Girl” follow suit. Fortunately, Davis doesn’t need any help saving It Was Easy from falling irrevocably into banality: upbeat tracks like “Piles of Paper,” “Found Out,” and especially the acrobatic falsetto on the chorus vocal of “Steady Love,” deliver some of the immaculate craftsmanship promised on the album opener.
It Was Easy amounts to an occasionally delightful, occasionally tepid guitar pop record, though the Dischord stamp on its spine and Davis’s DC pedigree cannot help but make me wish it aspired to a little bit more. Am I unfair to evaluate this album through the skewed lens of what used to be the DC scene, to talk about Title Tracks more in terms of geography than the influences the record alludes to? Yes, probably.
Unfair or not, I will go ahead and do something I have consciously tried not to do over the course of this review, which is mention Q and Not U again. Though one has the urge to talk about DC music in terms of tired emblems, Q and Not U—especially mid-career, on Different Damage (2002)—forged a middle ground, reconciling extremes and making unexpected bedfellows of punk fury and mid-tempo pop. (Punk bands who think applying eyeliner and writing songs with titles like “Jesus of Suburbia” are what “mature” means, let me point you in the direction of “Soft Pyramids,” or, better yet, a video of the band performing it live.) Though I’m sure everyone who eulogizes the direction “the DC sound” seemed to be headed at the beginning of the decade is guilty of more than a little idealized, curmudgeonly nostalgia and selective memory, the tight but unmistakably one-dimensional pop of It Was Easy sounds, well, a little too easy. Naive, idealistic, off-topic: maybe l’m all of these things, but I’m still just waiting for DC to write the next innovative chapter to its story. This is nice, but not it.