This Fair City

Fensepost

Loud, aggressive, and…….melodic?

Describing This Fair City is almost impossible. But, their less than self-conscious vibe grabs a hold of you and demands your full attention. It is almost like a euphoric drug spills from the speakers when you pop in Broken Surfaces. Visions of pirate ships and wintry battlefields appear with drums crashing as soldiers of normalcy fall. Or anything similar.

Their lightning evoking opening cut “What Comes Our Way”, may have the most bad ass violin jam since Morrissey told his ten minute tale of the grand moon river. But, the truest, 80’s massacring, and indie treasure of the album has to be “Associated Press”. Like an angry stab to the lung, it burns through you till you are left breathless from the operatic frenzy you just experienced.

Hard(er) rock tends to only focus on the loudness portion of a song. Leaving good measure behind and focusing on leaving ears bleeding rather than pleased. And this is the nonsense that This Fair City has managed to avoid. They create classic tunes with heavy riffs and disturbing imagery. Broken Surfaces brings a fresh light to the city of Portland as well with their melting pot sound and an incandescent aura. In this road of insanity they have chosen, they are surely heading in the right direction.

Discover Music newsletter - Feb. 2010

Independent Clauses

This Fair City decided to throw a viola into the power-pop blender

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.

Adequacy

This Fair City describes its music as a Fugazi meets Sunny Day Real Estate ala Eastern Block. Thinking I missed some influential punk band called Eastern Block, I did some searching. But the band is referring to a European folk influence, presumably due to the ever-present viola that softens the band’s post-punk feel nicely. I don’t get an Eastern European vibe, but Fugazi meets Sunny Day is a nice starting point; think 90s emo with a post-punk heart, lent a creative bent by Charlotte Grahek’s viola and frontman Jason Franklin’s often higher-pitched vocals (he doesn’t quite hit Jeremy Enigk’s range, but they’re impressive in their own right).

The album starts strongly, with the strings mixing beautifully with the aggressive guitars on “What Comes Our Way.” Though the song descends into fairly standard post-punk, it’s a strong opener. “Tonight We’re Running Back” starts slower, more akin to late-90s emo, and although I like the band’s faster guitarwork, this song may work the best on the album for what the musicians are trying to do. Those aforementioned Fugazi influences come across in the bass-heavy “Quite Frankly,” which bears a little too much punk-rock attitude for my tastes. The nearly eight-minute “In Transit” that closes Broken Surfaces is a fitting bookend to the beautiful opening of the album. The band shows patience, letting the song build and flow excellently.

When Franklin screams, he’s got a purely metal feel, that kind of high-pitched screech that’s been in classic metal bands for 20 years and sounds terribly out of place on a post-punk album (see the nearly screeched climactic moments on “Associated Press”). Franklin’s vocals aren’t easy to understand; you need repeated listens to catch his lyrics at times, and that’s not a bad thing. They mix nicely with the music, and when he belts them out in his higher range, as on “Thank You Mr. King,” they provide an emotionally powerful counterpart to the driving guitars. But the higher tones tend to remind me a bit too much of prog-rock bombast, as on the otherwise excellent “Always.”

Broken Surfaces is a good, though not great, release. The best part here is the creative approach to mixing strings with post-punk intensity; truth be told, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. But perhaps This Fair City tries to blend a few too many influences, and I keep coming back to metal underpinnings that just don’t work for me. Still, there’s more than enough excellent things on this EP to give me great hope for future releases.