There's an innocent and simple charm to fresh dollar bills. They feel perfectly flat on your hand and smell semisweet, not yet crinkled in the recesses of pockets or oiled by dirty hands. It's still only a dollar, sure, but if only for a moment, it feels like it's worth more. Like the alluring currency alluded to in its title, Pretty Money, the full-length debut of Raleigh's Jack the Radio, possesses a similarly fleeting promise. You enjoy the way it feels, but it doesn't stick around too long—not yet, anyway.
Formed by friends A.C. Hill and George Hage during their time at N.C. State, the band inserts a few extra spark plugs into rootsy rock 'n' roll, arriving at a forced, Southern pop sound that's heavy on thrills and light on staying power. Sliding guitar lines tangle, shredding through distortion, as ambling backbeats keep things from getting wild. Hill and Hage's voices elevate the affair. Hill's Neil Young-like croon mixes intriguingly with Hage's more nasal pipes, resulting in harmonies that move smoothly yet somehow retain an arresting roughness. This combination always seems to scratch the right itch.
While Jack the Radio's tone and vigor are commendable, their melodies and words sometimes miss. The lead instruments duel, but the underlying tunes are most often bland retreads of standard classic rock fare. Hill and Hage's lyrics hurt more often than help, too, generally depending upon forgettable love stories and unfocused wanderlust. The pair starts to turn it around near the end of record, delivering four straight songs that range from good to great. The best is the title track, which skewers the waffling that often afflicts our political dialogue over an infectiously off-kilter blues shuffle and the record's most furious riffs.
Jack the Radio's debut has its rewards, but overall, its value is one of promise. Consider Pretty Money a future investment.