If, as Jonny Lives! proclaims in the title of its debut EP, Tabloid Nation, the American public is a slave to exaggerated and over-the-top details, their album makes little sense; presenting easy-listening alterna-pop is about as accessible, and underwhelming, as you can get. The New York three-piece spends no time shielding meaning under layers of cliches and metaphors, has little use for advanced chord progressions, and relies on lead vocalist Jonny Dubowsky for his nearly crisp, slightly rough around the edges voice. That doesn’t mean they lack talent. Rather, they lack the desire to immediately blow you away, instead hoping to pull you in by being catchy rather than flashy.
There’s enough of this flash in the music world, with bands from the Darkness to Bling Kong to Electric Six sensationalizing their images with what is the tabloid equivalent of glossy photos and screaming headlines. Sometimes an album as underwhelming as Tabloid Nation is a welcome change. It’s no surprise to see that bassist Mikki James has played with members of Fountains of Wayne; Jonny Lives! is most reminiscent of early FoW, with its overtly accessible fusion of pop and rock. Take “Outside”; with its swerving guitars and vocal harmonies that recall breezy ’60s pop, it could just have easily been the B-side to the Adam Schlesinger-written “That Thing You Do.”
Opener “Get Steady” is the only track that deviates from their pop-based thinking, swerving toward the straight-forward garage-rock spectrum. The guitar riff jolts and darts during the verses, but the straightforward lyrics, vocals and drumming maintains this sense of ease in listening that pervades the album. But even with simple song construction, alterna-pop can still draw you in and then blow you away. That is where Jonny Lives! fails. The band gets past the point of creating enjoyable music, but can’t break through to the next level: creating music that is subtle yet astounding, akin to the songs of pop-rock mastermind Brendan Benson.
So Jonny Lives! gets stuck between The National Enquirer and The New York Times; they do anything but sensationalize, yet they are not sensational. But like the accessible and enjoyable TimeOut New York, Tabloid Nation is worth flipping through.