What happens when pop-rock in the heritage of Sunny Day Real Estate collides with an oft-haunting viola? Portland-based This Fair City is one place to begin looking for an answer. The edge of their sound falters between hard and soft, as a large part of their sound plays off contrasting elements: clean guitar obligattos versus thickly distorted power chords; lower-register sneers versus long-drawn falsetto; electric instruments versus a stray chamber orchestra voice. That is not to say that those pairs are irreconcilable, and thus the question becomes, “Can This Fair City pull that off?” At times, yes, they do. Although at other times, potential overshadows execution.
The opening track, “what comes our way,” opens with a dark, legato viola line from Brandi “Charlotte” Grahek, followed by tight, melodic interaction between two guitars–a la Emery–to add texture. Jason Charles Franklin’s vocals choose a surprising moment in which to quietly enter, giving a first taste of the intriguing interplay between viola and vocals that inhabits the rest of the album. One wonders exactly who the primary melodic voice is. Such contrasts in timbre between the traditional rock instruments and the viola weaves the entire album together. The effect rewards attentive listening, as the conflict and ambiguity between voices enhances the listening experience.
The most impressive element of the opening track is its density: for better or worse, each instrument is heavily involved in the piece. Franklin’s scream (he averages about one per song) near the end of the piece sounds slightly too forced and, at worst, dishonest, as can some of his lyrics. Franklin’s upper register, to which he easily ascends, resounds with varieties of emotional texture. His falsetto, of which he is in superb control, is incredibly impressive and moving. The piece finishes with a net gain in energy. What comes the listener’s way in the opening track is an honest preview of the general “sound” of This Fair City.
The next track–“tonight we’re running back”–follows right on the heels of its precedent, but brings us starkly (and effectively) down into a mellow mood. Here, This Fair City exhibits its penchant for creating moments of complex texture, interweaving multiple guitar lines (played by Franklin and Travis Schultz), viola obligattos, and vocal harmonies while the rhythm section provides a dependable point of reference. (See also the bridge and last ninety seconds of “thank you mr. king,” the rhythm section on “always,” and the layering of instruments that begins “associated press.”)
Stephen Burnett plays a richly solid bass guitar throughout the album. He avoids the common problems of rock bassists and excels at playing primarily rhythmic bass lines without being overbearing and, what is more, without sacrificing tonality and expression. His rhythmic partner, drummer Robin Marshall, exhibits consistency. Yet at times that consistency and reliability bleeds into repetition and an over-reliance on particular patterns and fills. However, Marshall’s playing is nothing short of tasteful on “associated press” and what I consider to be their best composition, the closing track, “in transit.”
Their last presentation to the listener exceeds the rest. “in transit” departs from the standard verse/chorus structure and the composition shows that, although This Fair City can hammer out measures in distorted and energetic unison, the band has an awareness of the power of nuance. A pluralism of voices slides deftly in and out of perception. The members draw a wide variety of tones and moods from their instruments, challenging the straightforwardness of previous tracks. The mood of the piece is at once impenetrable and self-evident. It moves fluently within its subdued nature. The title is apt; the song feels transitive. In fact, “in transit” is a fitting metonymy for This Fair City: it goes places, but is fittingly cyclical…and the viola gets the final word. –Max Thorn