jrjr“I can’t be everything you want me to be,” Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott sing on their latest single “Gone”. Listeners could interpret this as a vague reference to the recent changes they’ve gone through creatively. Dropping the catchy part of their kitschy name, these two dudes formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. now simply go by JR JR. It was a decision to make the conversation more about their music and less about their silly band name. And on their new self-titled record, they seem to be exploring a new sound along with their new name.

As with each of their albums since their inception back in 2009, JR JR have inched closer and closer toward full-on pop, but always maintaining a kind of indefinable aesthetic. They’re known for a quirkiness and painstaking attention to detail. With JR JR, they broaden that pop sound and make it much more epic, drawing inspiration from a big, synth-y 80s pop sound and doing lots of shouting. The little oddities that peppered many of their instrumental arrangements and harmonies have dulled and been watered down a bit, as JR JR aims for something more commercial.

The first four tracks on JR JR  are almost too interchangeable. They’re pumped-up, stadium-size pop tunes, with empowered lyrics about breaking free. Oddly enough, this record sounds the least “free” of all their work, particularly next to 2013’s magnificently weird and unique The Speed of Things. That record was so full of intricate vocal harmonies, stone cold funk, and romantic, sweeping melodies, it was impossible not to fall in love with it. JR JR has moments that live up to Speed, but as a whole it rarely reaches the same elevation. Instead, it’s tight and cohesive, scrubbed clean of any coloring outside the lines. Still, though, it is powerful, punchy pop.

One of their strengths as a band is their smooth, soft vocal harmony. Both Epstein and Zott are strong singers, and the way they mix their dreamy tones is swoon-worthy.  As a whole, JR JR shows off a more monotonous sound from the duo, weaving one solid sound through nearly every song, save for “For My Brother” and “Listening to Outkast June 23, 2013”, which are highlights for their rich falsetto runs.

Additionally, “James Dean” finds JR JR toying with auto-tune, a cheeky nod to sexed-up R&B. This device, while typically cringe-worthy, adds to what are some of the record’s best vocals. And standout single “Gone” feels like the sequel to one of Speed’s lushest gems “Beautiful Dream” with the way it floats, ethereally and gracefully. It is a reminder of how enchanting JR JR can be, big or small, funny band name or not.

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