Retrospectives and “Greatest Hits” albums are an iffy proposition. Record labels have proven to not be very effective at gauging which songs are worthy, while bands themselves haven’t done much better. Thankfully, Neil Sabatino (he who is Fairmont, along with whoever else is in the room at the time) understands what makes his band excellent.
Sabatino’s recognition that great vocal lines, hooky guitar riffs and concise songwriting are Fairmont’s strong suit makes Retrospective easily the best collection of Fairmont tunes yet. And that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.
The new “White Light” kicks off the set, and its Brit-rock undertones (Oasis!) are almost as surprising as the continuing shift back toward acoustic-led songs. The Meadow at Dusk EP featured acoustic guitars in an upbeat manner, but I can’t think of an album employing them to this level of seriousness or import since 2003’s Anomie. This, to me, is less of a throwback and more of a welcome home party: Anomie is the release that caused my much younger self to gush, “The members of Fairmont are on their way to becoming indie rock gods in the eyes of the public. I know they’re already immortalized in my mind.”
Regardless of this statement’s truth (I have reviewed every Fairmont release since Anomie favorably, if not exactly in as glowing terms), my early exuberance missed a fundamental element of Fairmont’s ethos: Sabatino and co. is more like the Mountain Goats than Death Cab for Cutie. Thoughtful songs with bitter-yet-clever lyrics dominate the proceedings here, as the songs primarily stick in the guitar-rock area of the spectrum. These songs, while occasionally going for the big pop hook, most often stay in the sleek, slick, low-to-the-ground mode.
However, Fairmont takes a swing at this theory by putting “Being & Nothingness” as the second track of the album and the first real “retrospective” track. Transcendence had a demonstrably theatrical bent, and this was best embodied in the 5:29 of “Being & Nothingness.” There are sleigh bells, choirs, lots of turns in the songwriting and a huge build-up to the end. The song feels far more personal than other Fairmont tunes, as the embattled bitterness is dropped for a more wounded anger over the loss of naivete. I have no idea whether it has any more connection to Sabatino than the violent escapist fantasy “At the End of the Movie,” or if the appropriated genre lends more “connection” to the tune, but for whatever reason it’s most immediately jaw-dropping song Fairmont has penned.
It’s little like the rest of the tunes on the album, but it’s the best one, and Fairmont acknowledges that. That’s gutsy and admirable, as evidence of how thoughtfully constructed this retrospective is.
The rest of the 50 minutes unfolds in a very enjoyable manner. Fairmont has gone through many iterations in the past ten years, and many of them are well-represented here. The Meadow at Dusk EP contributes two tunes that bring a levity to the album via calmer songs and the contributions of a great female vocalist counterpointing Sabatino. The cover of “Melt With You” (which IC featured on its 7th birthday EP!) is downright chipper. The rockers “Sometimes I’m Bitter,” “The Monster You’ve Become” and “Suspicion Haunts the Guilty Mind” are spread neatly throughout the album as anchors.
Retrospectives and greatest hits should serve to give people an intro to a band, and Fairmont‘s Retrospective: 2001-2011 will do exactly that for the uninitiated. For longtime fans, it accomplishes the rare feat in accumulating a great deal of the songs I actually want to hear from Fairmont. (I would have included “Happiness is a Million Miles Away,” but if I only have one quibble, that’s impressive.) If you’re into guitar-rock, thoughtful lyrics, Jean-Paul Sartre references or uniquely catchy songs, you’ll want to check this release.