In Brief: Despite some uneven segments, there are no dud songs here. Pretty darn impressive for a band that might be considered a side project.
In an era where rock bands have a tendency to name themselves increasingly obscure, presumptuous, or downright audacious things, sometimes it’s nice to have a band around that simply calls themselves what they are – no pretenses. That seems to be what the New York-based trio fun. has done, emblazoning the cover of their debut album Aim & Ignite with bright, bold colors, those three big letters, and a period, as if to say, “We’re here to amuse you, and that’s all we have to say about that.” While the period may lead to consternation among reviewers like myself who want to get the syntax right but find that word processors like to automatically capitalize the next word, I have to admire this indie pop supergroup for calling a spade a spade. I have listened to their music and deemed that they have described it correctly.
Wait, did I say supergroup? The words “super” and “indie” aren’t supposed to go together, and supergroups normally have more people in them, right? I guess. Be that as it may, the members of fun. are all known for being members of other groups, and one of them continues to serve in his capacity with the original group, making fun. apparently a bit of a side project. The two who have left their former groups behind are Nate Ruess, known in another life as the frontman of The Format, Andrew Dost, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire who was a founding member of Anathallo, and Jack Antonoff, current lead singer of Steel Train. (Jack Antonoff?! But I don’t even know Anton!) I only really have experience with Anathallo out of the three bands listed, and their baroque pop madness and sprawling arrangements might help to understand a teeny bit about where fun. is coming from, but as a whole I’d say their mix is more perky than cerebral. The guys in fun. aren’t above a little bombast from time to time, or the occasional bit of cheeky irony, but they can also be straightforward, endearing, and downright playful. With so many mixed emotions, it’s impressive that this record turns out anything close to cohesive, but a talented band can flip-lfop styles all they want and I generally won’t care as long as the songwriting is intriguing and the performances make an effort to stand out. Honestly, I can’t come up with a single track on this record where those things are not true.
If there’s one drawback to fun.’s music, it’s that the everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach might be a little too cutesy for folks who like their indie pop music lean & mean, just a few dudes banging out basic, catchy songs with memorable melodies. Occasionally a song which is otherwise brilliantly constructed might take one unexpected turn too many to ensure that it remains rattling around in your head for the rest of the day. fun. is no slouch in the catchiness department when the band wants to be, but at other times, there are songs which I’m sure are brilliant and yet if you were to ask me, “How’s that song go?”, I’d be at a loss for a musical quote that would easily identify it. While this can be the dividing line between goodness and greatness on a few occasions, this doesn’t detract from the fact that fun. has put out a delightful record. At least, it’s delightful if you don’t mind cutesy references to decades gone by that you’d rather not relive. (For me, that’s part of the… um… fun.)
1. Be Calm
The first track is a good example of fun.’s unusual approach to indie pop, fooling you into thing they’ve made a polka record with its droning intro of accordion and fiddle. It’s a long, slow wind-up to a fantastic pitch, delaying the expected gratification as the first chorus comes gently and quietly, with Nate Ruess’s voice barely above a whisper, as he retells a tale of being down-and-out in an unfamiliar city after his old band’s dissolution with equal parts paranoia and humor, even using other vocalists to “speak” to him and try to talk some sense into him. The tempo is fluid here, with Nate’s words accelerating to get us over the hump as the song chugs forward towards its eventual, bombastic release of energy in the final chorus, which urges us to be calm and collected even though the crashing drums and trumpet fanfares are doing anything but. It’s an off-kilter opening that shows us the artsier aspirations of the band, but it’s probably a good thing to put upfront just so folks won’t assume it’s a disposable pop record.
2. Benson Hedges
An acapella chorus comes bursting right out of the gate at the beginning of this one, telling you right away that it’s gonna be a blast: “Holy ghosts, when do you come out to play? ‘Cause if the Lord’s gonna find me, He better start looking today!” A little irreverent, but that’s part of the fun. What ensues from there is a course in mixing 21st century indie pop with the jaunty, piano-driven simplicity of old-time rock & roll… I think. Sometimes fun.’s influences are difficult for me to detect, but it’s a thrill ride nonetheless. The song maintains more of a constant pace than “Be Calm” did, galloping forward with another rambling story about God only knows what – my best guess would be a man trying to discern the meaning of life from out of the collage of information around him, briefly toying with the idea of forgiveness, and eventually ending up chucking that idea out the window and saying “Lord, I only want to be forgotten!” I’m not really bothered by this as I normally might be (especially since I could be interpreting it wrong), but the particular details of the song are what interest me, since I’m curious about how the sum of these experiences would lead the song’s protagonist to this conclusion. If there’s a weak spot in this song, it’s that it doesn’t display its thrilling chorus as prominently as you’d expect or go back to it often enough. I appreciate the attempt to toy with song structure, but one or two extra reprises of that chorus might help to bring it all back rather than feeling like a thought that trails off at the end.
3. All the Pretty Girls
You know this one’s gonna be unstoppably catchy from the little bit of studio chatter that gets caught on tape at the beginning of it, rehearsing a snippet of a big chorus that is catchy while not repeating itself to the point of silliness. The trial-and-error life of the single man who can’t get over his ex is humorously recounted here, to a cheeky tune which quite intentionally borrows its happy string section and cheery background vocals from ELO‘s “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”. (True story: I only know that song on account of Five Iron Frenzy‘s cover version.) You might get uncomfortable flashbacks to the 1970’s here, so your mileage may vary, but since I was born the same year that song was released, I don’t have anything to flash back to. Being surrounded by “All the pretty girls on a Saturday night” seems like a newly re-christened bachelor’s dream, but each and every girl Nate meets in this song has an inherent flaw that his ex apparently didn’t have – one’s a hyper-religious wacko, one’s painfully unaware that the 80’s ended a long time ago, one goes on and on and on about a band he hates. “What’s a boy to do?” he pines. And any small part of me that might miss being a single man quickly goes into hibernation.
4. I Wanna Be the One
fun. owes The Beatles more than a slight debt of gratitude with this sarcasm-free little love song… but then, who in modern pop music doesn’t? The touch is lighter here, with its cute trombone and playful piano and violin riffs leading the way (and then there’s a harpsichord? Holy wow, didn’t see that one coming.) The story, while still all over the map, seems to have no guile to it as Nate tells a girl how much enjoyed her company over a weekend in New York City, and how the usual annoyances of urban life couldn’t bring his mood down when he’s with her. “I wanna be the one to put it in a song”, he says of his feelings for her, and I guess he’s being self-referential, because that’s what he did. It’s admirable without being overly cloying.
5. At Least I’m Not as Sad (as I Used to Be)
Here’s a voice from another decade that you may not want to relive – the 90’s. Over an ironically solemn piano intro Nate asks us, “Have you ever wondered about our old nu-metal friends, and what became of them?” Nate then begins to spell it out for us, taking on the persona of a washed up rock star living the has-been D-bag lifestyle, a la Fred Durst well past the point at which he could have been considered culturally relevant. The music, thankfully, is not nu-metal – though it humorously throws in some out-of-character crunchy guitar riffs just to clash as inappropriately as possible with the marimba (or whatever Caribbean-sounding instrument that is), the taunting female backing vocals (literally, they’re singing that “neener neener” tune that kids tease each other with on the playground), and the little horn bursts that sound like a mariachi band who took a wrong turn on the way to someone’s quinceañera. Nate sounds arrogant as hell hell when recounting his life of “laughing, and drinking, and smoking, and singing” and taking his rock & roll way too seriously, and the song, otherwise a goofy party tune, takes a Queen-esque turn at the end when he insists as the whole thing turns into lighter-waving bombast: “I’m not a prophet, but I’m here to profit!” You just have to love the over-the-top silliness of it all.
6. Light a Roman Candle with Me
I’ve heard a lot of “We’ll never know unlive we give it a shot”-type love songs over the years, many of them offering very little in the way of compelling metaphors or actual reasons to give the relationship a whirl beyond “You’re really hot and I like you a lot” or whatever. So it’s refreshing to hear fun.’s lightly syncopated, piano-driven take on this, comparing newfound love to a firecracker that may or may not result in a magnificent explosion when lit. Nate’s modest but persuasive here, using clever rhymes (“If we were honest and both wrote a sonnet, together a sandwich with everything on it”) to drive home the point that risk can’t be avoided, but that it would seemingly be more beneficial to try and fail, because “At least then we’d know that the sparks didn’t glow.” The album’s title was actually inspired by this song, and it’s one of the album highlights, so as far as would-be title tracks go, this one lives up to the expectations.
7. Walking the Dog
The staccato guitar riffs in this bouncy little tune have Vampire Weekend written all over them. I don’t remember Vampire Weekend having the same funky bass licks or using synthesized elements in the production (until their second disc, anyway, which came out after this one), so it’s not plagiarism, but the similarity is definitely noteworthy. A line in “Roman Candle” admitted that “I know it goes on, it gets old”, and this song seems to explore that, asking a lover who has grown too familiar if she truly knows who he really is. Maybe she’s gone out looking for a little excitement elsewhere (I won’t speculate on the comment about her wrist getting bruised!), but he seems to want to win her back, interjecting, “You wanted better love, well it’s sleeping in your bedroom”. There’s a good “nah nah nah” hook to help drive the chorus home and make sure it sticks, but unlike a lot of wordless vocal interjections on these kinds of albums, it isn’t there to cover for a lack of lyrical content. There’s more going on in this relationship than meets the eye.
I love how the record actually get bouncier late in the game – this might be the most densely populated track in terms of all the things going on. The horn section is back, and my guess that it might be Mexican in origin wasn’t far off, given Nate’s description of the atmosphere in some watering hole in which he feels more alive than he has in a long time. On the surface, this might just be a simple anthem about getting wasted and having a good time, but there’s something deeper in the realization here, something that goes against the “live fast, die young” philosophy, as Nate reflects on the tragically short life of James Dean and thinks “Me, I’m gonna live forever.” Maybe it’s hubris; maybe it’s just too much alcohol that’s really talking. But you feel what he feels as those colorful lights spin around and a chorus of female backing vocals seemingly ripped from a 60’s soul band (seriously, where’d they come from?) join in the celebration. There are too many things happening to process all at once, but I enjoy the sum total of these ingredients.
9. The Gambler
The band gets most sentimental on this surprisingly lovely little piano ballad, its rolling triplets echoing the wide-eyed wonder of a young couple who has just met but who seems willing to take the gamble on growing old together. I’m amazed at Nate’s way with words here as he describes what would seem to be his own parents’ marriage, from the time they fell in “love at second sight” and he swears to her, in one of the song’s most charming lines, “I swear, when I grow up, I won’t just buy you a rose, I will buy the flower shop”. If this is a true story, then he might just be the one rock singer alive today who didn’t emerge from a dysfunctional family, so good on you, elder Ruesses! Most of the band stays out of the way on this one – aside from the piano, I notice a bit of string and horn accompaniment, but it’s meant to be intimate rather than ornate. Tracking with this couple through the years leaves me almost as misty-eyed as the opening sequence of the movie Up – except the outcome here is, thankfully, much happier in the end. (Side note: If these are Nate’s parents, then when he mentions their son, he’s complimenting his own virtues in the third person. That’s cheating, but it’s really a tribute to stuff he inherited from them, so I’ll let it slide.)
10. Take Your Time (Coming Home)
The album seems to wrap up where it began, with another song packed full of mood swings, finding Nate ruminating on the breakup of his old band and the place where it left him emotionally. Only this time, his outlook has changed, as the loss of something that had been a big part of his life for several years apparently led him to finding love, or at least that’s the impression I get a refrain which states “It’s a beautiful thing when you love somebody”. So perhaps it’s about taking the long and meandering road that will lead you to the exact place you’ll need to be. That approach would certainly describe the song, which goes from a slow, moody shuffle to a full-tilt rocker, stretching Nate’s vocals across the spectrum of emotions between quietly pensive and furiously happy (see the long, raucous fade that closes out this near eight-minute opus). The album’s only profanity is found here, in an isolated line during the quietest part of the song when he blurts out, “If it’s true, then what the f*ck have I been doing the past six years?” But it’s a question that ultimately leads him to greater satisfaction. The band does a bit of genre-hopping as the song takes its time to unwind and show off all of its splashy colors, so it’s definitely unlike the slow-burning power ballad you’d probably imagine it to be given the runtime and its placement at the end of the record. The band likes to surprise you like that, and I’m glad to say that I’ve got a smile on my face as this final surprise fades out.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Be Calm $1.50
Benson Hedges $1.50
All the Pretty Girls $2
I Wanna Be the One $1.50
At Least I’m Not as Sad (as I Used to Be) $1.50
Light a Roman Candle with Me $1.50
Walking the Dog $2
The Gambler $1.50
Take Your Time (Coming Home) $1.50
(The CD jacket doesn’t really say what these guys do. I know Nate sings lead and I’d assume Jack sings backup. Andrew likely plays a lot of instruments. But I have no clue who leads on guitar, bass, and drums, or whether they pass these duties around.)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.