In Brief: A short but sweet album, which feels more like a collaboration and less like a correspondence than their first album. Still, Fiction Family hasn’t quite “gelled” as a band yet.
Fiction Family is one of those bands that I’d honestly never have expected a second album from. They came into existence as a collaboration between two long-time friends from the San Diego area – Switchfoot‘s Jon Foreman and Nickel Creek‘s Sean Watkins – who seemed to have nothing in common genre-wise and who took several years of sporadic Emails, phone calls, and the occasional in-person visit to actually get an album’s worth of material recorded. Their debut record was the sort of thing that has its share of fun songs and a few insightful ones as well, but most of it had a sort of “rough draft” quality to it. It wasn’t until the duo assembled a touring band that a lot of those songs really came to life for me, and while Fiction Family in a live setting easily outshone both their studio work and the repetitive rut that Switchfoot’s live shows had started to get stuck in, I figured that assemblage of musicians was a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence.
Surprisingly, I was wrong, and not only did Jon and Sean find time in their busy schedules to collaborate again, they also brought on drummer Tyler Chester and bassist Aaron Redfield full-time, as if to say that this is now a real band and not just a “back burner” project. And it’s exciting to hear them functioning as a band in the studio for the first time. Even if their follow-up album, appropriately titled Fiction Family Reunion, is still a bit all-over-the-place stylistically, they definitely benefit from the weight and energy that a rhythm section can bring to even the most basic of song structures. Those who preferred Foreman in solo acoustic mode may disagree, and I’d imagine fans of Watkins’ lightning-fast finder-picking capabilities will come up mostly empty handed here as well (though in the latter case I’d have to ask if those folks have paid much attention to Watkins’ experimental pop approach on his solo albums, or the various collaborations that seem to have caused him to set that solo gig aside for the time being – none of it is very “bluegrassy”). But there’s something charming about hearing both of these guys try on different hats – both stylistically and in terms of the subject matter in their songwriting – and have a supportive outlet for stuff that might not work for their main gigs. Let’s face it, Switchfoot has been too super-serious for the last several albums to find a place for some of the more personal and occasionally humorous songwriting Foreman cooks up for this group, and Nickel Creek is… well, defunct. If Fiction Family seems to function as a recycle bin for all of the leftover material, there’s a good reason why. And it’s good to hear them taking what they’ve got and giving it a sound that better matches how it’ll get played in their live shows.
Now I’ll be honest – Fiction Family still has quite a few kinks to work out. For starters, the very idea of it being a collaboration seems like it’s lacking something when Foreman and Watkins seem more comfortable taking turns than actually writing or singing songs together. It may well be true that they both put a lot of hard work into each of the 10 tracks on this album, but Watkins in particular seems a bit marginalized, only singing lead on 4 of them, with three of the four being rather down-tempo and not really standing out as highlights. This was a bit of a problem on the previous album, and it might just be that Watkins is more comfortable as a wingman than he is taking the spotlight. But I don’t hear his influence much on the Foreman songs, and to be honest Foreman is a far more charismatic frontman, so the contrast between the two can be quite jarring. You can throw any concept of a theme for this album out the window, so if a Watkins song fails to land, Foreman doesn’t really follow it up with anything that will help give it context. There are maybe one or two moments on this album where the listener can actually sense some sort of interplay between the two – it’s much more pronounced when they play live. But at least last time we had them swapping the mic back and forth on “Out of Order”. Here, they may as well have mashed up a solo EP by each songwriter that happened to be recorded in the same studio with the same supporting players. You just don’t get a sense of the camaraderie that these two have shared for so long, which is a shame. There are also the inevitable nagging questions about why a few songs that actually do seem lyrically or stylistically suited to Switchfoot weren’t saved for one of their records. A few of these could have really added some color, or something intriguing to talk about, to Switchfoot’s discography at a stage in their career when they desperately need to rethink their increasingly generic approach. As much as I enjoy Fiction Family for just throwing ideas at a wall to see what sticks, there’s a part of me that thinks the reason we got quirkier songs on Switchfoot’s older albums were because Foreman didn’t have any other outlet for them yet.
But my issues with another band shouldn’t affect my opinion of a good record by Fiction Family, even if it’s too short and all over the place subject-wise to really stand out as a great record.Just as they brightened a dull season of musical drought in early 2009 when not a lot of interesting music was coming my way, they’ve struck again in a similarly dreary season of 2013, putting out the first record of the new year that I’ve genuinely enjoyed.
The formula that made “When She’s Near” such an instantly likeable first step for the band on their previous record is definitely in play here – a relaxed, handclap-driven beat, a quirky chord progression from Sean, and Jon singing wearily about being all verklempt when the woman of his dreams is far away. But “When She’s Near” was sunny and positive – this track changes up that formula by adding a shot of psychedelic pop and making it pretty clear that the woman in question shot him down. Hard. In what turns out to be a bit of a lazy metaphor, he compares himself to King Arthur or… something… noting that life with her feels like some sort of a too-good-to-be-true legend. It’s a cute song, catchy enough to work as a single, but those paying closer attention may feel like it’s a bit awkward to leave all references to the main lyrical motif out of the song until the chorus asks “Can you get me through Avalon?” Up until that point, it’s just general malaise, with none of the fantastical elements coming in until the bridge. So this feels like a songwriting idea that should have been workshopped a little more to make it clearer to the audience where exactly they were going with that whole allegory.
While Sean’s songwriting on the last album didn’t tend to stick out as clever as frequently as Jon’s did, he had this one song which I think a lot of folks overlooked, called “Closer than You Think”, which was a pretty clever indictment of folks living in the “Christian bubble”. He’s either going to be writing in that mode or in sad-sack “I just got dumped mode” most of the time, so I’m glad that his first offering on the album is upbeat, snappy in the musical department, and reasonably witty. You get a better sense of the camaraderie within the band here, as a fast-paced rhythm section meets up with Sean’s acoustic noodling and some bells that sound like they were taken from bicycles and other quirky noises. Sean’s vocals are as distorted as some of Jon’s were in the previous track, so they’ve still got that psychedelic edge, but it doesn’t take any of the sting away from his lyrics, which take aim at judgmental church leaders and others who would seek to turn Christianity into a purity cult and ostracize all of those who don’t fit their sensibilities to the letter. Sean’s usual lack of verbosity works in his favor as each simple phrase dismantles an uncomfortably familiar subculture: “TV preacher, spitting fear/’Cause love is just too simple/Smoke and fire’s all I hear/And how I’m oh so sinful/But sometimes, guilt just ain’t enough.” I’ve been there. After a while you get so numb to people telling you you’re doing something wrong and you’ll burn in hell for it, that it ceases to be a useful motivator to get you to change. In one fell swoop, Fiction Family has managed to identify better with those on the margins of the Church than Switchfoot’s managed to do on their last several albums.
3. Up Against the Wall
Speaking of sad-sack love songs, Jon seems to have come up with one here – its lackadaisical pace and its almost country-flavored guitar licks put the listener into immediate “empathy mode”, but if you’re expecting a typical breakup song, you might be surprised to take a closer look and discover that it’s more about two people who want to make it work but can’t seem to resolve their differences, than it actually is about the two going their separate ways. It’s still a sad, drawn out lament, which unlike the first two songs is in no hurry to get anywhere. But add in some weird chord progressions and some horns starting to swell up as the bridge builds toward the last chorus, and suddenly you get a surprisingly memorable sing-along, coming from a song that you might have expected to be too dreary to ever get itself off the ground. “Our love is a puzzle that can’t be solved”, the guys sing in a refrain that makes it oh-so-easy to join in. It’s a simple observation on one level, but it’s sung in a way that makes it clear it’s being felt by someone who’s gone through the ups and downs of relationships and felt the frustration of two people caring deeply about each other yet being too stubborn and having changed too much from the people they were when they first met to easily reconcile their diverging personalities.
4. Give Me Back My Girl
This song, more than any other, gives the newly permanent drummer and bassist a real spotlight, possibly even letting them play a more important role than the two men at the front of the band. It’s a trick that Switchfoot pulled on Vice Verses, sometimes resulting in songs with memorable grooves even if the lyrics weren’t all that great. But this one, with its breezy pace and its peppy rhythm and its quirky undertones, feels a heck of a lot like something Switchfoot might have done in the old days. On an album like Learning to Breathe, it felt like it was OK for Foreman to simply be bummed about a girl, and that sort of simple but relateable stuff has been all but missing ever since the band decided to dedicate darn near every song to the grand meaning of life itself. I’m not saying that anything terribly deep is going on here in the relationship department – the song might exist for no other reason than Jon needing to get his ambivalence towards L.A. out of his system, because the woman he loves (presumably this is fiction and he’s not actually singing about his real life wife) has left San Diego for the really big city, and it’s turned her into a bit of a diva, and his attitude about the place is, “You can keep it, just give me back my girl”. I’ve heard a few folks bag on this song for supposedly making the girl seem like she’s merely a possession to be won back. I don’t see it that way. It seems to be more about someone’s personality changing to the point where you feel they’ve lost their old identity and they’re not the person you once knew and loved. Moving to a new city can cause that as a person tries on new hats and new attitudes, and sometimes those changes can clash with the folks back home. Living in the greater Los Angeles area, I’ve heard my share of cheapshots taken at the city, as if all anyone ever comes here for is to be a vapid movie star or something. Despite that, the man from Oceanside still wins my sympathy, and all else aside, this is probably the catchiest and most rockin’ track on the album.
So here’s our first taste of what I like to refer to as “the sideshow Sean Watkins”. This downbeat acoustic song, with slightly bluesy overtones thanks to an electric guitar solo that shows up later, feels like the kind of thing that might seem deep and bravely honest if you were a budding young songwriter trying to work out your feelings in a journal, but quite honestly it seems so simplistic that it doesn’t have much of a place on an album that’s supposed to be a collaboration between two veterans. Watkins has a habit of stating the obvious and hoping it comes across as clever: “I am damaged and I don’t want you to know” is the main hook of the song, and if he’s hoping this might be the first song to clue you in that celebrities are real people, y’all, then his intentions are good but he’s sorely misguided. The metaphor he uses, describing his life like a house that he hurriedly tidies up when company is expected, shoving junk into the closets and removing pictures from the wall that depict a past he’d rather not explain and so forth, goes right down the middle of a well-trodden road in the world of songwriting. I can sort of get into the relaxed groove that the band has going for them here, but it’s nothing that “Up Against the Wall” didn’t do better. And just like on the previous album, there’s a mildly annoying interlude here, which takes a vocal clip from the song and pitch-shifts it, as if it’s coming in from a far-away radio station or something. Sometimes a guy’s gotta learn to recognize when he’s trying too hard to be clever, and this seems to be a trap that Watkins falls into time and time again.
6. God Badge
So, I commented that “Give Me Back My Girl” could have been a Switchfoot song from yesteryear. Well, this tune feels like it could be a modern-day Switchfoot song – and a really good one at that. I’m genuinely puzzled that Foreman didn’t save it for Switchfoot, because it’s clearly a song from a Christian perspective and the kind of thing that I think their fanbase would respond to. It may be the most profound thing he’s written since his solo records, though the song dives so deep into its music box-driven trance, the bass booming and all of the rhythmic pieces falling into place rather robotically, that it would have stuck out like a sore thumb on any of his seasonal EPs. Vice Verses could have used a song like this, since that record was big on sweeping, inspirational statements, but short on actual vice. And here comes this song in which he’s very plainly admonishing listeners, “Put your God badge down, and love someone.” Head-on, he’s addressing the sin of playing the “God police” and shunning people for their seemingly “un-Christian” actions despite not having walked in their shoes. “There is no us or them”, he signs calmly, evenly. “There’s only folks that you do or don’t understand.” In some ways, it plays as a response to Watkins’ feelings of marginalization in “Guilt”, though I don’t think the guys planned it that way. There’s something about this arrangement that, despite its dreamy atmosphere, feels a bit too “tightly wound” for Fiction Family – they tend to play things “looser” than this in a way that’s hard to describe. I enjoy this arrangement, and it’s especially unique for being the rare Fiction Family song to run beyond five minutes, which makes me think it could have served as a better closer on Vice Verses than the bland, too-obvious “Where We Belong”. With all due respect to Watkins and this band’s rhythm section, I would have really loved to hear what the other guys in Switchfoot might have done with this one to bring it to a show-stopping climax.
7. Never Call
Sean gives us a short little acoustic waltz here, dedicated to telling a friend that he or she is earning their own misery by having a reliable friend but never calling upon that friend for help. The song’s not long enough to really get into it, so Sean settles for listing analogies, some of which are clever (“A picture-less frame hangs on your wall/It perfectly compliments nothing at all”), and some of which are humdrum (“The world keeps on spinning, but we’re standing still”). I enjoy hearing Jon and Sean harmonize here (it’s one of the few times when I feel like they’re really singing a song together on this record), and Sean’s able to sprinkle a lot of notes into an otherwise simple chord progression, so there’s nothing unpleasant here – it’s just that it feels undercooked compared to its surroundings.
8. Just Rob Me
This may well be the oldest song on the album – Jon and Sean may have even been working on it before the previous album came out, because it sure seemed complete and thoroughly entertaining when they debuted it on their 2009 tour, mere weeks after that album’s release. It takes a lot for a non-album track to get my attention when I’ve specifically showed up to hear a band play tracks from a brand new release, but this one was so off-kilter and whimsical that I couldn’t help but find it delightful. It may be the best example of interplay between Foreman and Watkins on the album, because it’s an unapologetically speedy country song, which gives Jon the chance to play the role of “charming cad” as he tells a story about an outlaw while Sean fingerpicks his heart out on the acoustic. A lot of information flies by in a mere two and a half minutes, making the other short songs that surround it feel rather anemic by comparison. The premise of the song is basically that women are thieves and that the men who get into relationships with them are basically willingly forking over their possessions for women to use as they practice their deceptive art. Now I should make it clear that Jon’s being totally tongue-in-cheek here, describing the transactions that take place as dating relationships become marriages and families from a humorous and intentionally over-the-top angle. If you don’t grasp that the whole thing is a joke, you’re likely to think it’s one of the most chauvinistic songs ever written. Just try to imply to a woman in real life that she shouldn’t go out and get a job because her true talents lie in looking good and conning men out of their money. (Go ahead, it’ll be fun!) If it isn’t apparent that this is all a bunch of facetiousness from stuff like Jon flubbing a line and softly chuckling at himself, or changing up a lyric to say “Just rob Sean Watkins!” as a way of giving his sideman the spotlight for a delicious guitar solo, or piling on one ridiculous rhyme after the next at the end of the song (“Oh, she may do the dishes/But I pay her for my kisses/I know it’s not malicious/She’s just in the thievin’ business/She calls herself my Mrs./But she’s got me by the britches”), then you may not possess a funny bone.
9. Reality Calls
Nuh-uh, Sean Watkins. You don’t get to put two average soings about people calling each other (or the lack thereof) on the same album and think you can get away with it. What could have been a wonderfully whimsical song, with its loungey stop-start acoustic riffing and its goofy whistling, instead gets weighed down by subpar vagueness revolving around a single line that isn’t enough by itself to make the story of a man’s delusional nature as amusing as Sean seems to hope it will be. The central line that he keeps returning back to at the end of each self-deprecating verse is mildly clever (“Reality calls, and I just let it ring”), but the story surrounding it is your typical “Pretty girl won’t give me the time of day”-type stuff, with barely enough detail to hold it together long enough to maintain my interest. I would say it’s like a bad Jack Johnson outtake, but any number of mediocre tracks that have made it to Johnson’s actual albums could probably prove me wrong there.
10. Fools Gold
Foreman’s final song is one of the more intelligently written and intriguing tracks I’ve heard from him lately. It’s not a whole lot to marvel at musically, going for the same sort of laid-back, world-weary ballad mode that worked for “Up Against the Wall”. But the lyrics are worth digging into, not only for their keen references to classic rock idols, but for their unusual story about a man who used to be a rock star and is now a cold cynic, bent on dismantling those idols. I often say that you shouldn’t name-check near-universally adored artists or song titles (in this case, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) in your lyrics unless you’re prepared to live up to those influences. But in the case of this song, the references work exactly because the song isn’t trying to imitate either of them. The washed-up rock star is now “shining like fool’s gold”, a pale reflection of both his influences and his own glory days. He’s beaten down by addictions and a recent divorce, and the friendship he and Foreman once shared has deteriorated. It’s a sad ending, but a wise and observant one, as if to remind us that music is deeply meaningful to us and we’ll always have the nostalgia, but in the end, it doesn’t save the soul. As Jon puts it: “Maybe rock ‘n roll never dies… but it sure gets old.”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Up Against the Wall $1
Give Me Back My Girl $1.75
God Badge $1.25
Never Call $.50
Just Rob Me $2
Reality Calls $.25
Fools Gold $1
Jon Foreman: Lead and backing vocals, guitars, piano
Sean Watkins: Lead and backing vocals, guitars
Tyler Chester: Drums
Aaron Redfield: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.