"Dog Problems" (Vanity Label/Nettwerk)
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SAM MEANS and Nate Ruess, the alchemists behind the Format, would have you believe that their sophomore album is about a relationship -- the breakup and the makeup, the "She Doesn't Get It" and "The Compromise." But it is really about optimism, and not just for the human condition. "Dog Problems" (in stores Tuesday) makes a statement that popcraft can prevail.
Choruses soar, but not because some knob-twiddler pumped them full of production helium. Melodies stick but never wear out their welcome. Songs are arranged but don't suffocate from their orchestration. And Ruess' vocals yearn but never take on the ballast of the Format's emo contemporaries.
Whether wry or humorous ("Tick-tock, you're not a clock / you're a time bomb" Ruess sings in "Time Bomb"), the Format's paeans to young romance feel natural -- even when the oom-pah-pah of horns kick in on the title track.
Much of the album's frisky soundscape owes to the deft touch of producer Steven McDonald and the contributions of pop guru Roger Joseph Manning Jr. If "Dog Problems" occasionally teeters on kitsch, it never goes over the waterfall. Credit the twentysomething songwriting team from suburban Phoenix for giving vintage-pop fans a reason to clap their hands (and bob their heads) and say yes.
-- Kevin Bronson