Alex Vans’ first full-length project is ambitious and impressive, skewering contemporary consumer culture while providing memorable melodies, creative arrangements, and sparkling production. 1960s and 70s-era rock and pop echo throughout the project, but this is no tribute album. Vans’ lyrics, often ironic, are a stand-out feature. Vans also proves himself to be as capable an arranger and co-producer as he is a songwriter.DJ Booth’s
range of styles, from the Orbison/Petty rumba-rock of “Black and White” to the effervescent dance groove on “Chase the Night” might be confusing to listeners in a lesser artist’s hands, but Vans keeps it all together with his distinctive lyrical style and consistent approach in recording the songs.
The opening track, “Good Enough” is an excellent example. When the song begins the singer is trying to get ahead in a cut-throat commercial world: “Tell me I’ll go far, write your number on the back of my receipt at the bar.” By the chorus he’s tired of being judged and issues a threat: “Do we meet your standards? If not we won’t be stopped from raising hell.” By the song’s end he has turned the tables and is now the critic: “you’re turning my investment to dust.” The success he’d longed for is now “a crooked deal.” The song portrays one individual, but applies to a wide swath of people marginalized by consumer culture.
Vans’ lyrics usually have more than one meaning; the best address contemporary issues through the lens of personal relationships. “Good Enough” critiques commercialism via a conflicted business relationship. “Black and White” describes the destructive effects of oversimplified thinking on society as well as between two lovers. “Chase the Night” describes two people who use pleasure to escape commitment, but can also just as easily apply to our culture. See how it works?
The arrangements on DJ Booth
are economical and effective. “Good Enough” adds instruments gradually to a pounding four-on-the-floor beat (a beat ironically similar to The Beatles “Getting Better”). Unexpected and slightly whacky synth flourishes appear here and elsewhere, proving that, though he’s serious, Vans also hopes we’ll have fun. Several of the songs on DJ Booth
, including “Good Enough,” have instrumental and vocal countermelodies memorable enough to make listeners want to sing along.
DJ Booth’s final track, “Hide Away,” is also the most ambitious, running over six minutes in length. The singer spends his time in the verses making disclaimers about himself and his chances of regaining his beloved: “I’m trying not to answer for my past … I’m repenting for the sins of my old man ... and I’m hoping you won’t find me this way…” The irony turns up in the chorus: “But my love … won’t fade away.” “Hide Away” also has one of those infectious countermelodies between verses and an adventurous middle section, introduced by a Doors-like electric piano with brief, but effective, jazz solos on trumpet and sax.
Vans’ new project isn’t perfect. The ironic approach of the lyrics isn’t consistent throughout every song. And when Vans’ characters make direct statements they just aren’t as convincing. Sonically Vans’ vocals sometimes sound weak compared to the project’s big production style.
That being said, Alex Vans’ accomplishments on DJ Booth
are very real: combining innovative arrangements with penetrating lyrics to create a collection of songs that transcends any one musical style or time period.