We all know what happened last time Jimmy Tamborello dusted off his Dntel moniker. A few indie rockers showed up to the party, and an electro-pop phenomenon fit to soundtrack every car commercial in America was born. Death Cab for Cutie front guy Ben Gibbard's turn on "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan" was the record's fan-fave, winning over legions of IDM-intrigued hipsters and prompting the duo to give their long-distance collab a full-length go. Et voila-The Postal Service's 2003 sleeper hit, Give Up.
A hundred covers of "Such Great Heights," a Honda Civic ad, and a few Grey's Anatomys later, the dust has settled and Jimmy Tamborello is waiting with a star-studded new Dntel record, Dumb Luck. But what effect has the hullabaloo had on our hero?
To be fair, this isn't Tambo's first answer to the surge of success (he peeked his head out on the muddled 2006 James Figurine record Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake). This is, however, his most substantial-in both content and context. Which is just to say, this is a careful, important-sounding record.
On Dumb Luck-a monument to strategically choreographed follow-ups-there's zero room for mistakes. Here, nothing is up to luck, every note is in its place, and every guest slot is filled with a Conor Oberst, a Jenny Lewis, or a Grizzly Bear. This Tamborello is determined to give those Postal-sized expectations a run for their money. And, really, he almost does.
"Roll On" is a fuzzy country-pop construction featuring vocals from Servicewoman Lewis, whose feet have been planted in rhinestone boots since leaving Rilo Kiley a couple years back. With her voice enveloped in a yawn of white noise and pinging synths, she still sounds like a cowpoke: a huge testament to Dntel's chameleonic skill-after all, there's no electro subgenre that incorporates the steel-stringed blues of Americana. "Dreams," with Mystic Chords of Memory, is old hat, comparatively. Likewise, Tamborello spit-shines Conor Oberst's digital urn on "Breakfast in Bed," breathing life into the same sort of tipsy electro that failed on Bright Eyes' foray into programmed beats and lap-pop, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Meanwhile, Lali Puna shows up on the Notwistian "I'd Like to Know," and Mia Doi Todd reprises her guest role on the crawling snapper "Rock My Boat."
Surprisingly, the only track Tamborello lends his vocals to is the most compelling. On the album's title track he sings, "Just don't forget that it's dumb luck that got you here/Don't fool yourself, misfortune's waiting for the best time to appear/So make it clear that all the courage and the talent that you had was just in dreams/And when you wake up you will beg to get it back."
No, the fame certainly hasn't gone to his head; in fact, it's rattled him. Here, Tamborello's voice is fraught with resignation and concern; as the song hiccups around him, processed guitar jitters render his words even more awkward and hopeless. The discomfort frames the rest of the album nicely. In the scant moments we're allowed into Tamborello's psyche, his self-doubt brings Dumb Luck's huge guest list into clearer (perhaps unbecoming, even desperate?) focus. But we only get this taste once. For the rest of the record, he's a vehicle. In the end, for all the care it takes, Dumb Luck falters by ignoring Tamborello himself. We can only hope that next time around, Dntel will start appreciating his own voice.