Prior to joining forces as Capital Cities, Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian collaborated by writing commercial jingles. Listening to the duo's debut LP, 'In a Tidal Wave of Mystery,' that fact becomes painfully apparent. Merchant and Simonian are expert electro-pop craftsmen, blending disco, New Wave and easy-listening with whip-smart focus. But as one might expect from a pair of hook hustlers, their songs lack distinct fingerprints and breeze by pleasantly without saying much of anything.

It's easy to imagine any of these tracks blasting in your local Aeropostale -- and that's not a good thing. Capital Cities still write with the anonymity and predictability of ad-men. They also sing in bland double-tracked unison and favor obvious synth patterns and tired lyrical cliches. ("Even if the sky is falling down," goes the album's opening chorus, "I know that we'll be safe and sound.") The worst offender is 'Love Away,' a digi-pop synth ballad that -- on the stale scale -- gives Owl City a run for his Oreo money. ("Throw your TV out the door / One, two, three, four, on the floor." Dear God.)

This is a well-crafted, polite, uniformly catchy album that could have been made by any other alt-dance band on the planet. Even the band's quirks (their fondness for synthesized horns, their occasional brushes with hip-hop sampling styles) come off as calculated gestures for cool points. When Capital Cities open up their sonic palette and attempt to get weird, the results feel more like ProTools patchworks than the electro-prog absurdities they seem on paper: 'Farah Fawcett' is improbably goofy, blending NPR programming samples with big-soul vocalizing and a totally random (and totally wasted) cameo from Andre 3000, rap music's most notorious recluse.

For better or worse, though, some jingles get stuck in your head for the right reasons. 'Patience Gets Us Nowhere' has an artful scope to offset its easy-breezy chorus; the bass-heavy 'I Sold My Bed But Not My Stereo' sounds like Passion Pit on a glitzy New Romantic kick; 'Kangaroo Court' is the album's funky wake-up call, blending wildly arpeggiating synths with a monstrous bass line and an undeniably smooth chorus.

In these moments, Capital Cities seem liberated from their jingle mentality -- more concerned with having fun than with thinking about what having fun sounds like.

5 out of 10 rating

More From