Monday, November 10, 2014

Album review: Fictionist—when to give it up? Not yet.

The story

Utah-based band Fictionist has a story to tell. In 2010, they achieved every band’s dream of signing a multi-album contract with a major record label (Atlantic records) after getting to the final round of a contest to be featured on cover of Rolling Stone. But reality slowly eclipsed the dream—after trying hard to please the record company despite an adversarial relationship with the producer, rewriting much of their material and compromising their own aesthetic decisions, their debut album was shelved. Three years of work, and nothing to show. Eventually, about a year ago, Atlantic dropped them. I think many other bands would have split ways at this point, but for Fictionist, this was freedom and a new start—the band regrouped and recorded the album they had always wanted to, eponymously titled and released last month.

So that’s the story, and it’s a good one. But a good story doesn’t make it far without good music. How is the album?

Lather, rinse, varied repeat

The more I listen to this album: 1) the more I like it, 2) the more it gets stuck in my head, 3) the more new, exciting details I notice. Besides having catchy vocal lines that fit their voices well, they know how to fill the empty spaces between vocal melodies.
There is never a dull moment. Nothing repeats in this album without having some rewarding changes. For example, compare the difference between verses one and two of “Not Over You”; the bass, piano, drums, keyboards and even the vocal delivery charges. While the choruses of this song are somewhat similar (to provide some foundation opposite the variant verses), even these aren’t exactly the same. For a song whose verse and chorus are built on similar chord changes, they certainly disguised it, or even used the consistency to their advantage to vary the heck out of everything else.

Every member of this band is strong and they all contribute. For example, in “Lock and Key,” there is not just one good line of music—each part has its moment to shine. They also show their unselfishness by recently moving between two song writers and lead singers (previously, it was just one). The lyrics are for the most part memorable, thoughtful, and not as annoyingly obfuscated as many art pop bands’ lyrics. The words lend a depth and emotion to the already well-constructed music. Though occasionally, they could be a bit better at showing, not telling.

Formally, while sticking to the verse-chorus paradigm, when each verse or chorus will happen is not always predictable. One compositional technique that pops up in “Cut String Kite,” “City at War,” and “Lock and Key” is something like an ostinato extension: they take one little motive that didn’t seem important and repeat it over and over, in the process taking the music to a new place.

Sandwiched between an introductory church organ and an ethereal guitar + clock ticking outro, “Free Spirit” is the high point of the album, a delicious pounding dance track with a masterful building pre-chorus. It gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. Though I’m still not sure, I think the drumming might be the secret ingredient. Other honorable mentions (besides the tracks mentioned above) include “Give it Up” and “City at War,” a song which echoes the fears of so many towns around the world while simultaneously confronting fears of one’s personal dark side.

But who are they like?

One thing that’s amazing to me is that every review I’ve read mentions different comparisons to other bands—in one place The Police and Phil Collins, in another Pink Floyd and Gotye, in a third Chvrches, Phoenix, and Cat Stevens, and in yet another Pet Shop Boys, MGMT, Passion Pit. I think these offhand comparisons do Fictionist a disservice. Instead of trying to put the band in a box with other groups (which I think is overdone in music criticism anyway; it’s an easy way to talk about the music without actually talking about the music), maybe we should recognize Fictionist as something new that pulls from everything around them to create something original and new.

While I can’t say it’s a perfect album (they haven’t quite worked out how to end songs, the wobbly synth sound in “Leave the Light On” and “Statue in the Stone” gets old fast, and some songs are a little forgettable), I’m glad Fictionist didn’t “give it up”—their “fire’s still burning,” and I’m glad “something told [them they] should hold on.”

Vocab: eponymous, outro, ostinato, pre-chorus

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