Over the past couple of weeks, I set out to write my first contribution to the site on Reservoir, the debut album by the British orchestral-pop group Fanfarlo.
The first time I heard Fanfarlo, it was at a show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York on a friend’s recommendation. After witnessing an intoxicating opening set by Swedish band Wildbirds and Peacedrums, I admit I was in good spirits, so when the five members of Fanfarlo took the stage, I was taken by their excitement and candor. Unlike some bands that seem distant or aloof onstage, Fanfarlo was warm, opening, and just plain cute. In their button up shirts and high-waisted pants, the guys were well-dressed—almost to a comical extent. The keyboard player even wore a vest. And, as is often the case, the one girl in the group, Cathy Lucas, was adorable sporting her boyish haircut. The very stage itself seemed to be dressed up in a whimsical fashion. It was adorned with string lights, and flags were draped from the ceiling to create a canopy of color. It was almost too much—even for me, a closet-lover of all things cute and hopelessly twee.
As the show progressed, I kept trying to determine whom they reminded me of. A less folky version of Fleet Foxes? Or maybe Okkervil River meets Noah and the Whale with some Beirut thrown in for good measure? Needless to say, after their lively set, I left their show in a decidedly good mood, and vowed to get my hands on their upcoming album, Reservoir, to see how the sound they cultivated in the studio compared to their live performance. So, I decided to count the show as my official first listen of Reservoir. After all, it was their debut album, so presumably all the songs they played were from it.
During my initial few listens to Reservoir, I was somewhat conflicted. Is Fanfarlo simply another plaid-shirt adorned ‘it’ band like Fleet Foxes, destined to be played on repeat and then quickly played out? Was what they were doing original, or would they be more aptly named ‘Fanfar-lull’ as my former boss, Justin, called them? He had a point. Even during the show, I found myself constantly comparing them to other folk-tinged, orchestral indie bands. And from looking at the comments following their write-ups on NPR and various other music blog sites, it seems that I am not alone in searching for comparisons. Others drop names like Arcade Fire, Sigur Rós, Sufjan Stevens, and more.
Initially, it was my impulse to defend them from the criticism of my former boss. Overall, their music is decent and comes across as too generic only when compared to the more bizarre and experimental bands that keep emerging on the scene. If you’re looking for dance-y synth parts, thick walls of reverb, or sound that is carefully constructed from an intricate barrage of effects pedals, then Fanfarlo won’t be for you. Despite the impressive number of shows they have coming up at CMJ this week, Fanfarlo seems to fit in more with the NPR crowd than with the hipster crowd. (They have already been featured on All Things Considered and touted for “melding obscure literary references with vintage instruments.”)
The lead singer, Simon Balthazar, has a pleasant enough voice—a little different, but not to an annoying extent a la Colin Meloy of The Decemberists or John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. Balthazar has a certain swagger to his voice that generally comes off as endearing when it doesn’t sound plain lazy like it does in “Drowning Men.”
Reservoir begins with “Ghosts,” a track that starts quietly and gradually builds as the bass line, violin melody, and vocals enter the mix. This natural crescendo makes for a strong introduction to the album even if the hand-clapping gets a bit hokey during the chorus.
The gradual build-up seems to be a mainstay of Fanfarlo. Many of the songs unfold slowly with a piano melody or softly strummed guitar part before erupting into a jovial cascade of violins, violas, and trumpets. The band even managed to slowly build the hype for Reservoir by releasing a steady stream of singles on various independent record labels over a two-year period before releasing the album in its entirety.
Both the live show and the album perk up noticeably with the buoyant, standout track “The Walls Are Coming Down.” But with its attention to the brass section, accordion, and clarinet, the song definitely sounds like a rip-off of the pseudo-Balkan-flavored band Beirut. Apparently, the Fanfarlo performance at the Bowery Ballroom even featured Jon Natchez, who has played with Beirut, which makes me think that my ears perked up to the song in the first place only because it reminded me of one of my favorite bands.
With reflection, I think my favorite song on the album is “Harold T. Wilkins or How to Wait for a Very Long Time.” You can watch a video of an acoustic version of the track here [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTwErvgjuU8] to get a pretty good idea of both the song and the people behind the music. In the video, their intimate arrangement around the small shed-like room in many ways reveals the sound they are going for: a bit rustic and sparse on the surface but also surprisingly warm and evocative. Everything about the singer, Balthazar, is charming from his crooked teeth and Buddy Holly glasses to his understated but earnest delivery. The song is simple. Simple beat. Simple chord progressions. But this restrained charm that they have carefully cultivated is absolutely infectious.
I want to be able to come down on a certain side in my review of this album–to definitively say, ‘They suck’ or ‘Hey, they’re actually good.’ Right now, as I wrap up this review, I can’t help but be a bit taken by the catchy beat of “Luna,” as I ponder the strangely apt line, “And you will have to start taking sides.”
I think the interesting thing is I probably would have made a stronger argument for one side or the other had I just listened to this album a few times and then written the review. With something as subjective as a record review, it’s typically pretty easy to find evidence to support either camp, and it’s always fun to tear something apart… but listening to Reservoir ten times has kind of left me more ambivalent in the end—which is not what I was expecting. We’ve had a strange relationship, Reservoir and I. During the course of my listens, I’ve actually struggled to get myself to devote the time to the band when there are so many other CDs I want to be listening to, but the interesting thing is that once I actually put Reservoir on, I typically enjoy it. There’s a hopeful kind of cadence to the album that nicely combats the increasingly cold and rainy days of fall, but the surprising somber quality of the lyrics keeps the album from being too saccharine. (Surprisingly, broken machines, dashed dreams, oppressive walls, rusty nails, bombs, poison, and lies are all covered in the songs.)
Despite the foray into darker topics, however, Reservoir would definitely have been one of those albums my high school self would have thrown on in the car stereo to appease my mother. They’ve got it all: male/female vocals, the Swedish hookup (Balthazar hails from Sweden), plaid shirts, infectious smiles, swaggering vocals, dreamy pop arrangements, lovely string accompaniments, and on and on. They are pleasant, endearing, and safe. With their wave of melodicas, trumpets, mandolins, and a glockenspiel they’re obviously throwing in as many hooks and whistles as they could—and from witnessing their live show, it’s clear that they have fun doing it. But ultimately, I think they are doomed to fall off the radar and join the long list of indie has-beens when the next line of musical darlings comes around… in oh, a couple of months.