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.
I’ve covered digital label Mint 400 Records before, because I think they do great work in the lo-fi indie/lo-fi folk realm and because they have an interesting business model. The label’s latest compilation Patchwork shows off 17 of their bands, giving a pretty good snapshot of what they’re doing. (Disclosure: I’m the manager of The Duke of Norfolk, who is signed to Mint 400.)
The lo-fi work doesn’t disappoint: Sink Tapes, Fairmont, and The Maravines all have compelling offerings near the beginning of the album. The Multi-Purpose Solution and The Mai 68s hold down the end of the record, making sure you didn’t forget about the indie-rock. The acoustic-based work is also exciting, as newcomer Murzik adds an attention-grabbing piano-and-voice entry. Dave Charles sings a chill song that references Star Wars and sounds like some sort of early Jason Mraz tune. Cropduster provides another standout, with a gravelly, creaking voice over an acoustic guitar until it explodes into a grungy sort of thing for a bit.
Cropduster’s rock isn’t an isolated thing: the label has developed some loud leanings. Shallows’ “Always” is aggressive, dissonant guitar rock that borders on post-hardcore; Tri-State’s tune is straight-up guitar rock; and Jack Skuller contributes some rockabilly with ’50s vocal leanings. Mint 400 has grown from a small label with a specific niche to a widely diverse roster of bands, and Patchwork shows off the best of all of them. Check it out at iTunes or Spotify.
A ton of great singles have come my way in January, so I thought I’d put them all in one big post arranged quiet to loud. Enjoy!
1. “Pacific (Acoustic)” – Indigo Wild. Were you looking for a rolling, intricate, acoustic mountain jam? Like Fleet Foxes if they were less hazy, this will make you long for the pines.
2. “Anna” – Daniel G. Harmann. After graduating his solo project The Trouble Starts up to a full-on rock outfit, Harmann gives old-school fans a few tracks that hearken back to his early, dreamy days. His trembling, soaring voice over spare guitar chords is just wonderful to these ears.
4. “Slow & Easy” – Scott H. Biram. Less gospel and more ominous vibes mark the second Biram single off Nothin’ But Blood. It’s still incredibly engaging, what with the crisp production and Biram’s voice.
5. “Celeste” – Ezra Vine. If you’re of the opinion that you can never have enough hand claps, whoa-ohs, and happy melodies, raise your hand. Then lower that hand and click on this peppy, wonderful tune.
6. “Girl Don’t Fight It” – Phone Home. Optimistic, keys-heavy, proggy indie-rock in the vein of Fang Island, And So I Watch You From Afar, and others. It’s giddy and heavy and intelligent!
7. “Planets” – Little Earthquake. Peppy acoustic-pop + massive MGMT synth melodies = this unique song.
9. “Violent Shooting Stars” – Robot Princess. Mostly RP is a heavy, exuberant, video-game-infused garage-pop band (WEEZER FOREVER!!). This track puts them more in a pensive mood (at least for them) before ratcheting up to some stomping guitars. Get your power-pop on, dudes.
10. “Bird in the Water” – The Trouble Starts. Harmann’s band, throwing down pop-rock a la Snow Patrol. This would be fun to hear live.
11. “Tangle” – Acid Fast. Starts out with a nostalgic, emo-esque half-time section, then blasts off into a punk rock second half. The melodies bounce off those basement walls with almost more cymbals and passion than you can handle.
Fairmont has been a part of Independent Clauses for almost as long as it’s been alive. Over those almost 10 years I’ve seen Fairmont transition from an acoustic-fronted indie-rock band to a theatrical power-pop band and back. In short, it’s been REM to My Chemical Romance to a Violent Femmes/Shins hybrid. That last one spot is where Fairmont currently sits with Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos.
Leaning heavily on acoustic guitar, marimba, and male/female duo vocals, the New Jersey band remakes some of its tunes from the last few years in a chill, stripped-down style. They never lose the friction-energy that powers Neil Sabatino’s songs, but they do smooth out some of the rough edges that the tunes can get from a gritty guitar line or pounding drum kit. “Black Heart Burns” is a great example of their sound on this release, as Sabatino and co. create a sparse but engaged backdrop for the vocal duet to play over. The song is a little morose (re: title), but it never comes off as depressing or overtly navelgazing.
That trend continues throughout: the tunes are surprisingly light and sprightly for their heavy content. “Elephant” has a carnivalesque wonder to it; “King and Queen” is an upbeat song in a major key that will have you tapping your foot and loving the fact that this acoustic album includes marimba. “I Am the Mountain,” a favorite of mine, is just as catchy as in its electric form.
If you’re into acoustic-fronted indie-rock/indie-pop (and who isn’t, these days?), Fairmont’s in-studio live set (no applause, which made me breathe a sigh of relief) is a great way to spend 25ish minutes. Live & Acoustic from the Forest of Chaos drops 1/28.
I was having lunch with a friend my age (mid-20s) a few weeks ago. He got a bachelor’s degree in music and now works as the music director at the church I go to. The topic veered toward orchestral music, which my friend lamented as dying. “I go to the symphony, and I’m the youngest person there by 30 years!” he said with frustration. And it’s true; composers aren’t the sexy, rebellious Liszts of old; hipsters don’t flock to traditional classical works. Still, there are people working in the idiom, and I don’t think we’ll sound the last playing of Mozart any time soon.
The Noise Revival’s Nathan Felix is the latest in this movement of young composers working to create full orchestral work, releasing his debut symphony The Curse The Cross & The Lion today. It is indeed a full symphony of almost a half-hour’s length. This isn’t pseudo-soundtrack music, although there are some moments reminiscent of good film scores. No, this is a consistent piece of music that takes full attention and full energy to enjoy. There are nuances. In some ways, I had to listen with a different set of ears than my usual “indie-pop” ones; there are different goals, different textures, different ways of being. There’s a heartbreaking oboe solo that stands out amid “V. Don’t Give It Up,” which is one of the most beautiful and powerful sections in the piece; that’s not going to happen in indie-pop all that often.
I’m not qualified to assess this symphony against other classical music, but I can say that it’s incredibly rewarding to listen to for those who don’t listen to a ton of classical music. If you’re into orchestral music, have an adventurous ear, or just like beautiful things, then The Curse The Cross & The Lion should be on your to-hear list.
I idolized the Beach Boys instead of The Beatles growing up, so Pet Sounds is a monument in my musical development. Even as a teenager, I was able to grasp how incredibly difficult everything was on that album. So it’s fairly ambitious to cover the whole album in an indie-pop/indie-folk idiom, as the bands on Mint 400 Records set out to do. (That’s a direct download link, btw.)
The Duke of Norfolk (whom I manage) kicks off the album with a singer/songwriter-esque take on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” setting the mood for the rest of the album. The One & Nines conform their Motown soul bent into a passionate version of “I’m Waiting for the Day,” while Fairmont’s stand-out rendition of “God Only Knows” is probably very close to what Brian Wilson would have done in the power-pop idiom. A few of the tracks delve heavily into lo-fi arrangements and performances, so fans of that genre have plenty to love as well. It’s free, too! Enjoy Mint 400’s Pet Sounds.
This project has been a microcosm of my whole 10 years running this blog: a little idea that got bigger and bigger with help from all sorts of people who pitched in. Massive thanks go out to The Carradini Family, Uncle David and Aunt Rose, the Lubbers Family, Neil Sabatino & Mint 400 Records, Albert & Katy, Drew Shahan, Odysseus, Joseph Carradini, Jeffrey M. Hinton, Esq., @codybrom a.k.a Xpress-O, Conner ‘Raconteur’ Ferguson, Janelle Ghana Whitehead, Tyler “sk” Robinson, Jake Grant, Anat Earon, Zack Lapinski, Mila, Tom & April Graney, Stephen Carradini, Theo Webb, Jesse C, D. G. Ross, Martin & Skadi, Jacob Presson, Michelle Bui, and Elle Knop.
The first 200 downloads of the album are free, so go get ’em while they’re available! (The price is $4 a side once the freebies are gone.) The streaming will always be free, so if nothing else you can go listen to some sweet tunes from some of Independent Clauses’ favorite bands. Once again, thanks to all who contributed in any way, both to the project and to Independent Clauses’ last 10 years. It’s been a thrilling, wild ride.
Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of the Postal Service
Fairmont has been writing hook-laden power-pop/indie-pop with a bitter twist for more than a decade, and The Grand and the Grandiose is the band’s most assured work yet. Grand strips down the complex arrangements that have characterized recent Fairmont releases to a guitar/bass/drums trio with occasional contributions from piano and melodic percussion. The tunes rely heavily on the guitar-based songwriting for the main thrust of the album, especially in mood-setting instrumental opener “The Dead Leaves of Autumn.” Fairmont has been writing songs in this genre for so long that this narrow focus is a benefit instead of a hindrance: the band knows what it’s doing, and that expertise shows in these ten never-boring tunes.
The streamlined sonic palette puts the focus squarely on Neil Sabatino’s confident, excellent vocal melodies. The memorable refrain of “Misery,” the intimate performance of “The Sun Shines Only for Me,” and the “ba ba ba” background vocals of ‘Black Heart” are highlights in these tunes that don’t mince words or sounds. If you’re a fan of thoughtful power-pop/indie-pop from veterans who have the chops to make you remember a song long after it’s gone, The Grand and the Grandiose is going to excite you.
It’s not just XKCD that has noticed a lack of popular Christmas songs written and/or recorded after 1980. Shane Vidaurri of The Ashes noticed this as well, and pitched the idea of a Christmas compilation album to his record label, Mint 400 Records. Label owner Neil Sabatino (Fairmont) agreed, and now we have A Very Merry Christmas Compilation to bring cheer in.
The comp is excellent because everyone here turns in a stellar effort. None of the seven bands phone in it or get schmaltzy. These are honest-to-goodness Christmas tunes, worthy of being replayed on radio until no one remembers who the artist is anymore and no one cares. This would especially work because the comp doesn’t stick to one genre, but ranges from The Duke of Norfolk’s folky “Lovely Winter” to Fairmont’s jangly “This Song is Your Christmas Gift” to the ‘50s style rock ‘n ‘roll of The Ones and Nines’ “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.”
The lattermost is a perfect opening track to the compilation, as it sets a jubilant tone for the album. It’s like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and I love it. Adam N. Copeland apes the Killers’ tradition of putting out a soaring, modern pop tune for the holiday, with a tune that reaches to the same vocal heights as Brandon Flowers’.
There’s some melancholy as well: The Ashes’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” can’t even staunch the somber elements of the tune with an almost island-flavored take on the tune. “Sorry I’m Broke” and “This Song Is Your Christmas Gift” are both about the stress of being poor at Christmas.
No compilation would be complete without a hymn or two: The Duke of Norfolk’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” brings banjo and beatboxing together for an overall reverent take on the classic. I know, that sounds weird; you’ll just have to check it out.
A Very Merry Christmas Compilation takes Christmas music seriously, and the results are some incredible originals and traditionals. Since it’s varied in genre, you can put it on the stereo and let the wildly varied emotions of the season wash over you. If you sprinkled the tunes into your current list of standards, they wouldn’t stand out at all; they’re that good.
Full disclosure: I worked on The Duke of Norfolk’s tracks as a set of critical ears.
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.
We here at Independent Clauses have covered music for years, but we’ve never put any music into the world. This is a problem that we are fixing right now. We are releasing for your ears’ delight, Independent Clauses, vol. 1: Our Friends are All Freaking Awesome. Seeing as this is our first time releasing music, we’ve got a few kinks to work out and a few curves to learn. But, below is the zip file.
1. “Brian, Jenny, and the Mayan Calendar” by Marc with a C
2. “I Won’t Back Down” by Chris Hickey (Tom Petty Cover)
3. “I Melt With You” by Fairmont (Modern English Cover)
4. “Another Stripe – Carradini Mix” by Dishwater Psychics
Super props to all four bands that contributed; this is a dream of mine, and I’m so grateful to them for making it happen. Props to all the bands that we’ve worked with over the years who have motivated us to want to release music in the first place. Super thanks to my friends Katy and Albert, who allowed me to use their computer to make this post happen (my internet is jacked, which is why there wasn’t a post yesterday).
The art, metadata, and more are on the way. I just really wanted to get this out, because I’m excited about it. I once was concerned about everything being perfect on the first try; seven years later, I’m convinced that everything is a work in progress.
So, enjoy the songs! Three of them are unreleased, with the Fairmont cover being a rare b-side. I’m really excited about all of the tunes, as evidenced by the title, and I hope you are as well.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.