uch has changed since Jimmy Tamborello released the excellent, exciting, and heartbreaking Life is Full of Possibilities, in 2001. Laptop pop, the heading under which DNTEL most easily fell, essentially had its moment in the sun as a new and interesting genre, and now even the new Say Anything single has fractured guitars over a skittering beat. In the meantime, though, Tamborello finally received the attention he should’ve gotten for Possibilities, as the still significantly less famous half of laptop pop’s most (and arguably only) commercially successful act, the Postal Service. With the release of the second DNTEL studio effort, Dumb Luck, a full six years later, now would seem the optimal time for Tamborello to prove that he can be successful even without genre excitement or an indie rock poster boy by his side.
I’ll save you the suspense—he kind of drops the ball. The music on Dumb Luck consists of chopped-up beats, plucked acoustic guitars, gently yearning vocals and thick, crackling production. In other words, it’s a laptop pop record, one that wears its stripes surprisingly proudly. That’s not necessarily a problem itself. If anyone were able to make the sound new and exciting again, it should be Tamborello, but dear god does he fail to do so. “New” and “exciting” are not words meant to describe a record like Dumb Luck; that task is left to words like “draggy,” “amorphous,” “inconsequential” and “unfortunate” (and fine, I guess it at least rates a “pretty” too).
The thing is, Life is Full of Possibilities had some really great songs. The Postal Service-presaging “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” is the one everyone remembers, and probably deservedly so, but it’s only one song on an album full of highlights, including the almost disturbingly dour “Why I’m So Unhappy,” the seductive “Anywhere Anyone,” and the strangely comforting “Last Songs.” There are no great songs to speak of on Dumb Luck, and in fact there are just a few that I would hesitatingly call “good,” or more important, “memorable.”
Much of it has to do with the album’s pacing. Which is to say, there should be some. Possibilities at least had a couple of surprisingly successful upbeat numbers (“Fear of Corners,” “Fireworks”) to complement the slower songs, making their drama all the more devastating. Dumb Luck just drags, though, without a pulse-raiser in sight—the closest thing to one, “The Distance” (featuring Arthur & Yu), is still almost entirely devoid of energy, merely slightly raised in BPM compared to the surrounding tracks.
Speaking of Arthur & Yu, though, it’s also important to mention the other thing working against the success of Dumb Luck—its collaborators. Tamborello failed to heed all the lessons he should’ve learned from his Postal Service days about writing tight, catchy pop songs in interesting new ways, but the part about getting someone else to sing on his songs apparently stuck. Outside of the opening title track, which he sings on his own, Jimmy brought with him a grocery list of collaborators that reads almost like Jimmy Tamborello Presents Shock Value, including such “wow, haven’t heard those names in a while” laptoppers like Lali Puna, Fog, and Mia Doi Todd. These performers add little to the album with their largely unimpressive and interchangeable cameos, and demonstrate one of the keys to the success of Possibilities: the importance of relatively slight instrumental tracks to support and build tension for the eventual stuns of the album’s more pop-focused tracks.
This stuff might not have sounded quite so damp back in 2001, but now it just sounds tired and bored. And actually, scratch that, come to think of it, this stuff wouldn’t have held water in 2001 either—it’s not really that the times have changed, or that Tamborello hasn’t, despite the fact that both things are very much the case. It’s just that somewhere along the line, he stopped writing songs that could be described positively in any way other than “pretty.” And for a man who once tried and succeeding in convincing us just how many other possibilities life had, just “pretty” doesn’t hold water.