In Brief: A fun collaboration, and an interesting and thoughtful collection of songs, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the duo’s live show.
Fiction Family is the end result of a collaboration between a pair of dudes from two of my favorite bands that has been talked about forever, that has gone through a name change or two, and that has been a subject of much press and much lore among the fans of both bands, only coming to fruition in a tangible, purchasable product a good two to three years after the idea first germinated. The two dudes in question are Jon Foreman, lead singer of Christian alternative-gone-mainstream rock band Switchfoot and a prolific solo artist in his own right, and Sean Watkins, former guitarist for Nickel Creek, a precocious upstart bluegrass band for whom copious amounts of solo work for each of its members appears to be a requirement. While both men grew up in the San Diego area, the idea to work together on a few songs didn’t come up until Foreman found his band on the bill alongside Nickel Creek at a local street festival several years back, and he and Sean eventually came up with the crazy notion that they could share snippets of song ideas back and forth while on the road, essentially constructing completed compositions through a long-distance artistic relationship. What was originally conceieved as a joke one-off project by an act called The Real SeanJon (which they hoped would get them sued by P. Diddy or whatever pseudonym he’s going by now) evolved into the full-length album called Fiction Family, which demonstrates a bit more artistry than you might expect from just a couple of bros goofing around on their laptops.
Of course, none of this is surprising given the varied amount of talent that has been shown by both Foreman and Watkins. Each knows his way around a tasty acoustic guitar lick (especially the lightning-fingered Watkins), each has his share of fascination with sunny indie pop stylings with an experimental dark side that emerges every now and again, and each is capable of penning a thought-provoking lyric when he puts his mind to it. Those who expect the crunchy, larger-than-life ruminations on the meaning of life that we typically get from Switchfoot, or the deft fingerwork and high-stacked vocal harmonies of a Nickel Creek album, might be disappointed to find that none of Fiction Family’s songs can easily be traced to either source. But those who have taken the time to absorb Foreman’s seasonal cycle of solo EPs will find familiar ground here, with Foreman waxing on similar spiritual topics at times, and ruminating on relationships gone awry elsewhere. Watkins takes a page from his slightly experimental pop/folk album Blinders On by also leaning heavily on the relationship theme, while throwing in the occasional bit of electronic weirdness just to remind you that there’s a Radiohead fanboy lurking underneath the folksy exterior. Watkins gets the better end of the deal in terms of who benefits more from this collaboration, since Foreman helps to bring his material up to a level of consistency not previously seen on his albums recorded apart from Nickel Creek.
Both men, however, could use a little bit of outside advice at times. Fiction Family is not a long album, but it can drag and feel a bit schizophrenic at times, with several gently-picked folk songs being difficult to distinguish from one another at first, punctuated by bouncier or stranger moments in between that are sometimes bona fide winners and sometimes guaranteed to elicit a reaction of “what the hell were these guys thinking?” Occasionally I’m left to wonder how much of a collaboration this album really was – sure, I can hear one singing background vocals for the other, and both men contribute an ample amount of instrumentation to each others’ moments in the spotlight, but it’s still far too easy to separate the Foreman songs from the Watkins songs (and Foreman’s on the lead mic for most of ’em, with only a handful of songs standing out as a true meeting of the minds). I suppose Nickel Creek’s albums are like this in a way – Chris Thile generally dominated the pack and sang lead whenever a song was his idea, with Sara Watkins popping in frequently to change up the vocal chemistry, and Sean coming in a distant third in terms of swho seemed most comfortable at the mic. The whole frontman thing isn’t as much Sean’s nature as it is Jon’s, and the largely acoustic setting helps to tone down some of Jon’s tendency to overdo the showmanship thing. So in a way, these guys are helping to meet each other in the middle. It’s a solid concoction of ingredients, albeit not an absolutely mind-blowing one.
1. When She’s Near
When life has me vexed, I stop thinking clearly
I can get so afraid that I push her away
Repentance is next, I miss her so dearly
See, those nights are the days when my love is away…
A gravel-crunching, “organic electric” sort of beat kicks the album off along with an acoustic chord progression that has that vague touch of melancholy wimsy that tips us off to it being a creation of Sean Watkins. The “big catchy single” of the album proves to be a good middle ground between the two men, with Jon Foreman singing the lead vocal and both guys teaming up for a chorus about a woman who may as well be the sun itself, given the effect she has on their lives. When she’s gone, life’s dreary. When she’s around, nothing seems impossible. It’s not the deepest song in the world, but it’s fun and quirky and it’s got that optimistic “winter melting into spring” sort of feeling that makes it a good single choice for this time of year.
2. Out of Order
Yes indeed, it’s time to rearrange
What now is normal in my life used to be so strange
I remember days when it took so much more to slow me down…
One of the most heavily produced and oddball songs on the record turns out to be my favorite, with its off-kilter programmed beat (I think it’s 7/8?), Sean’s intricate fingerpicking, and the distant, echoing vocals that comprise the song’s minimal refrain, and each man takes a verse that seems to take off running from that starting point, giving the song a lopsided, rambling sort of feel. It’s beautiful and addictive and strange all at once.
3. Not Sure
We both made the call, but it was only my fault
Such a beautiful view with a long way to fall
I was afraid how it could hurt to leave the safety up above
But if it doesn’t, it’s not love…
We venture into more typical “acoustic coffeehouse” territory here with this nefuddled breakup ballad. Sean Watkins is nothing if not consistent when it comes to sad sack relationship songs, though this one seems to lag a bit in comparison to some of the more colorful ones he’s written. It’s his first lead vocal on the record, but it feels dropped in from one of his solo albums, with Jon’s input seeming rather minimal. I don’t hate it, but it’s kind of a momentum-killer this early in the record.
A gunshot was the only word you said
And all of my defenses came out red
Love is red, love is red
She left with you, you left me lying dead…
Is it just me, or does Jon Foreman have an obsession with guns in his song lyrics? Think way back in the day, to the song “Don’t Be There” on Switchfoot’s very first album, up through more recent offerings like “Ammunition” and “The Fatal Wound”, firearms and bullets seems to recur as a metaphor for damaged relationships, and this twisted little number is no different. Musically speaking, it’s innocuous enough, peacefully flowing along to the tune of twin acoustic guitars, but listen carefully and you’ll realize there’s something devious going on here. Two men are fighting for a woman’s affection, and one shoots the other down and leaves him for dead, taking the girl with him and riding off into the sunset. The final line of the song could be a glimmer of hope, a hint that the cycle of verbal violence will end, as Jon remarks, “I’m not dead if what you did don’t hurt.” Or it could just be cowboy machismo, a man trying to avoid showing how bruised his ego is after falling off his horse. There’s a brief fanfare of toy piano and horns after this that makes my ears perk up every time until I realize that, unfortunately, it’s not part of the upcoming song.
5. Elements Combined
We talk a lot, but it’s always small
Tiny bricks that make a giant wall
I hope these words are a wrecking ball…
The watery vocals that kick this one off initially tricked me into thinking it would be another out-there experiment, but it’s actually a fairly sweet pop concoction, using the piano as a driving force to propel a deftly written pop song. It sounds like more of Watkins’ usual pining after a girl at first, but I think the way he describes her as a mix of “earth, air, fire, wine” is an metaphor left wide open for interpretation, and his final remark about wanting to be a “wrecking ball” that breaks through the awkward, stop-and-start conversation between the two of them strikes me as a particularly keen observation. This isn’t a song that immediately jumps out and grabs your attention – the curiosity of it emerges slowly over time.
6. War in My Blood
So here’s my consolation
An opponent is enough
It takes two to go to war
And only one to fall in love…
Jon’s back to singing about fighting again, making this lightly bouncy acoustic tune feel like a bit of a sequel to “Betrayal”. You’ll recognize the theme of depravtiy explored in this song if you paid attention to songs like “Revenge” and “Lord, Save Me From Myself” on Jon’s solo albums. This one isn’t so much about fighting over the girl as it is about fighting with the girl. It’s a nice contrast to Sean’s conflict of “should It alk to her or be shy?”, because here Jon’s already in the thick of the relationship, asking whether he should let her win whatever war they’re fighting that day. it’s a good “love/hate relationship” sort of song.
7. Throw It Away
There’s a hand to rock the cradle
And a hand to help us stand
With a gentle kind of motion
As it moves across the land…
Things get more stretched out and sparse here, on an eerie cover of a song originally composed by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. I would have never guessed it was once a jazz song without Googling Ms. Lincoln – sure, minor key dominates the song and it’s got some subtle melodic twists and turns to keep it interesting, but I get the feeling that Sean and Jon tweaked it more than a bit to fit their chosen genre. My ignornace about whatever’s been changed here aside, the nervously quiet arrangement of the song definitely does Lincoln’s lyrics a solid, pushing each carefully croaked word to the forefront as Foreman sings it, sounding like his worst fears are being realized as he exhorts us to hold loosely to the things we think we own. “You can never lose a thing if it belongs to you”, he assures us in what just might be the album’s most quizzical line.
8. Closer Than You Think
Forget about your bother if he doesn’t seem to understand
The heaven you’ve concocted in your head
Never mind your sister when she asks you silly questions
About all the broken people left unfed
The burning questions are better left for dead…
Those who grew accustomed to the more direct spiritual content of Foreman’s solo material, and who looked for it here on Fiction Family’s record and complained it was hard to find, probably don’t realize that Sean Watkins wrote this song for them. What seems to be a bright, up-tempo song about believing in your dreams and looking forward to better days ahead actually turns out to be a bit of a satirical swat at religious folks who live inside a bubble. Sean and Jon come from inside the bubble; they’ve earned the right to speak about, and they do so with subtle, wry humor, assuring us that the real world’s problems can be happily ignored and that there’s really not much more of a purpose to life than waiting around to be whisked away to heaven. I like this, it gives those who are observant enough to pick up on the meaning a good chuckle without being overly mean-spirited about it.
9. Please Don’t Call It Love
You were indifferent, I was young
We were both drinking fiction with greedy tongues …
This song is the one serious misstep on the album – it’s ambitious in all the right ways as it attempts to take on the weary persona of Ernest Hemingway, the writer who inspired many of the song’s little nuggets of wisdom. What doesn’t work about it is that it’s so slow and dreary, even to the point of letting the tempo sag for melodramatic effect, that not even the presence of Sara Watkins on violin can perk it up. On top of that, Foreman seems so ragged as to sound off-key at times, and I know the guys had a rule about not overdubbing their voices on this album, but seriously, this song needs some help. It sounds like the record itself is wilting as it’s being played, and I guess it’s an accurately melodramatic framing device for a song about two people who deceived themselves into thinking their infatuation with each other was genuine love. Taken for its lyrics alone, I can really appreciate this song, but the music borders on unlistenable, and that isn’t even taking into into account the hellish interlude at the end of it, featuring a Wurlitzer playing the scales in the most jarring manner possible while a bit of warped electric guitar feedback assaults our senses at the bitter end. Hmmm, sounds like a reject from a Sufjan Stevens album. (Wait, make that a reject from a Sufjan Stevens B-sides album.)
I’m feeling like a curse
I feel like I’m getting worse
I’m bored with war in songs
I’ve been bitter far too long
Come on, prove me wrong…
Tucked in between two of the album’s strangest songs is another Foreman composition (he seems to dominate the record towards the end, actually) that might be easy to miss at first. Its description of a hopelessly dark and rainy day actually makes it sound like a perfect candidate for Foreman’s Fall EP, and it certainly would have added a bit of color to that record’s overall sense of starkness. This is the “before” that corresponds to the “after” of “When She’s Near” – Jon feels that his faith has withered and that he’s outlived his usefulness as he watches a difficult year slowly die down into nothingness. His words pour out like a frustrated prayer – “Tell me I’m not crazy… or maybe just a little bit… but mostly prove me wrong.” It’s another subtle piece, but it holds up extremely well when examined more closely.
11. We Ride
The winds are calmed and the deepest freed
We turn clever frills to steal the breath of angry seas
Hold me down where blood meets water
Where time is black and white, bright blue until you breathe…
Foreman seems a bit off-key again on this one – it’s a deceptive piece that starts off with gentle, chiming acoustics, and eventually takes more of an “indie rocker messing around in the studio” approach as the drums begin to clang and clatter in the background, slowly building up to an electrically charged march before a collage of wacky noise takes over and the whole thing falls apart, going from quiet to chaotic to crashing headlong into the final song in about three minutes flat. It’s enjoyable until that last bit, which leaves me with a feeling of, “Ummm… okay?”
12. Look for Me Baby
Yeah, you can give my regards to your house of cards
Your dead end stars and your Pharisee shards…
The duo ties up the album here with its shortest and most amusingly off-kilter song, one which almost feels like it could have been a hidden track on an album by a more serious and professional band, but which proudly waves its freak flag in the last listed slot on this disc. Foreman whips out the banjo and the guys have a quick little hoedown as he offers a playful kiss-off to a world full of broken-down hypocrites. “You can look for me baby, but baby, I’ll be long gone!”, he retorts with a wink and a nudge. It’s almost like they’re singing the sped-up rockabilly blues, with more of a warped melody because these two guys are gleefully unwilling to leave well enough alone when it comes to a predictable chord progression.
As amusingly quirky as this record can sometimes be, and as insightful as its more toned-down moments often are, it’s inconsistent from track to track. Seeing Fiction Family live this weekend gave me greater appreciation for their skills as a collaborative unit, bringing together a talented backing band and basically allowing Jon to play proxy for Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile by being sandwiched in between Sean and Sara. Their M.O. in concert seems to be “Cram as many ridiculously talented players onto the stage at once as possible”, and that made the delivery of every single song stronger than its recorded counterpart. Here’s hoping that Fiction Family loses the studio tweaking (for the most part) and focuses more on the live band interplay if and when they get around to doing another record. This is a good enough start, but it only hints at the brilliance within.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
When She’s Near $1.50
Out of Order $2
Not Sure $.50
Elements Combined $1.50
War in My Blood $1
Throw It Away $1
Closer Than You Think $1.50
Please Don’t Call It Love -$.50
We Ride $.50
Look for Me Baby $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.