When you name your band the Format, after the cloning and shaping process administered by major labels, I suppose you should probably expect that somewhere down the road, a signing to one of those majors would inevitably fall to pieces. Sam Means and Nate Ruess, the duo behind Phoenix, Arizona’s the Format, found themselves courted by Elektra Records after the release of their debut EP and the local hit single, now featured on MTV’s Laguna Beach, the aptly titled, “The First Single.” One album and another EP later, Elektra was folded into Atlantic and the Format, somewhat joyfully, found themselves without a home. Combine what some bands might see as a terrible tragedy with singer Nate Ruess’ broken relationship and you have what might be expected as the biggest downer album of the year, but instead Dog Problems, the Format’s sophomore release, is anything but. The album turns out to be one of the most upbeat and infectious pop collections so far this year.
Thanks to the major label `format,’ the duo was often sent out on tours with some of the unlikeliest of bands, namely those in the emo camp. But rather than screaming to the point of near blubbering about how rotten life is, Ruess and Means (sounds kind of like a law firm, doesn’t it?) take an entirely different tack. The two produce Beatlesque harmonies that drive the blues away despite their morose underpinnings. “Matches” is an old-timey circus-like song that acts as introduction to the wonderful “I’m Actual,” a song in which Ruess implores his love to “take the next hour and talk about me,” while backed by angelic harmony vocals. By the last half-minute, the song crescendos into a swelling melodic masterpiece as Ruess continues his selfish rant adding in his “hatred for corporate magazines, you know they don’t speak to me.” “Time Bomb” is one of the most radio friendly songs on the album with a catchy chorus that could rival even Semisonic and Ben Folds Five in the quirk factor.
“She Doesn’t Get It” is one of those songs that takes the theme of painful breakup and turns it into anthemic fun. “Pick Me Up” is another standout track with more dramatic lyrics such as “You’re gonna walk backwards through the room / Does that mean I won’t see you? / It means you walk backwards through the room / Do you wanna make this simple? / Do you wanna make me sweeter?” When Ruess sings his lyrics, we know exactly who he blames for the relationship. The title track is another old-timey song, like something off of Fiona Apple’s latest album, complete with New Orleans brass, both entertaining and a nice respite from the pop overload. “Oceans” and “Dead End” bring back the power pop with a vengeance, again framing pain with joyful music. “Snails” is the only song that appeared earlier, on the EP of the same title, the last they would ever release on Elektra. Instead of the weeping sound of the lap or pedal steel as on the EP version, this adds disco strings and what sounds like a happy harpsichord. The lyrics of “Snails” are some of the Format’s most clever and thoughtful, which is really saying something.
“The Compromise” covers the subject of disagreeing with their former label over artistic vision. Fuzz guitars (which sound as if they are playing the part of the label’s desire for teenage emo rock) overlap sunny harmonies and melodies as Ruess sings, “I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump / I’d call it being one step closer to being where I want to be.” Chalk this one up to those witty throwaway songs like Cracker’s “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself” and Ben Folds Five’s paean to writing songs for soundtracks, “Bad Idea.” Although Ruess sings “I love love / I love being in love / I don’t care what it does to me,” the rest of the lyrics of “Inches and Falling” seem to go against this introductory verse and chorus. The Format channel Slade in this song, another bullet in the chamber aimed at a failed relationship. “If fingers are mistakes, then use this one to place the blame,” he further sings.
Other than love itself, probably the most influential impetus for songwriting is the loss of love. “Sometimes when sailors are sailing they think twice about where they’re anchoring,” is one of the lyrics Ruess uses in the album-closing barnstormer “If Work Permits,” and it works on a number of different levels. Sure, everyone loves love, as he mentioned in “Inches and Falling,” but in order to avoid what might be inevitable heartbreak, we might want to take that second thought. Yet, if that were true, we wouldn’t have received the gift of Dog Problems. So, is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? I think the Format would answer in the affirmative.