Fairmont has gone through a variety of permutations over the past decade: melodic indie-rock, theatrical pop-rock, folky indie-pop, and bitter rock’n’roll. With 8 1/2, they’ve returned to their roots as a melodic indie-rock band with a cynical cast to the lyrics. But when you come home after a decade, things are different no matter what. In Fairmont’s case, the lessons of seven and a half previous albums (hence the name) have honed their songwriting skills and arrangement aesthetics.
Where Fairmont was once a three-piece that got by on exactly three instruments, they’ve expanded comfortably into their current quartet lineup with a variety of support instruments. Female vocals, marimba, keys, synths, and other miscellaneous sounds fill out the songs here, giving songs like “Love & War,” “Don’t Wait Up,” and “The Connection” unique vibes. The first of those three benefits from the interplay of all those extra sounds in an upbeat indie-rock tune with a mid-song slow section (familiar territory for Fairmont).
“Don’t Wait Up” is a moodier tune that captures the nuance that Fairmont has earned over a decade of songwriting. Neil Sabatino’s voice, usually brash and nasal in Violent Femmes style, is tuned to sweeter sounds here. The female background vocals and glockenspiel melody temper some of the brittle edges on Fairmont’s sound, and the tune becomes a highlight.
Sabatino nuancing his vocals isn’t the only new element in the sung category: “The Connection” is the first Fairmont song ever to feature female lead vocals, making it a standout. The rainy-day vibes of “Gone” are largely sold by the descending keys, fitting drums, and guest vocals from IC faves The Maravines.
The tweaks that Fairmont made on 8 1/2 result in a more comfortable, relaxed version of the band. Sure, they’ve still got jittery, anxious energy (“Love & War”), but it’s set in the service of different goals here. If you’re into melodic indie-rock with strong melodies and textured arrangements, you’ll be into 8 1/2. The album drops on 3/3.
*Neil Sabatino of Fairmont owns Mint 400 Records, which is the record label of The Duke of Norfolk, whom I manage.