Tuesday, February 21, 2012

fun. – Some Nights

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Happy Mardi Gras, readers, from The Big Easy! Your intrepid blogger is pulling off the impossible, here: reviewing a highly-anticipated album while participating in the world's greatest annual celebration. Okay, some of this post may have been pre-written.

It's under the auspices of such a time of jubilation and merriment that I must deliver some unfortunate news: the sophomore release by the New York theatrical pop trio, fun., – Some Nights, out today on Fueled By Ramen Records – is in many ways a supreme disappointment. Some of you may recall in my 2010 review of the group's debut record – Aim & Ignite (NMT) – I declared it the best record of that year. I'll stand by that statement and proclaim that effort to be my favorite album of the past five years, but offer no such praise for it's 11-track follow-up. To sum it up at the outset, it's a far cry from the eclectic and ambitious material the band used to introduce itself, replaced by artificial hip-hop beats and excessive autotuning by producer Jeff Bhasker. In fact, I'll go as far as to say I believe Bhasker decimated what could have otherwise been another outstanding effort by fun,. and what remains is an embarrassment.

Now, things start off quite promising. The compilation's eponymous Intro track – while short – is ambitious via the same sort of Queen-style underpinnings that circulated throughout Aim & Ignite. Frontman Nate Ruess gentle mezzo tenor once again pairs well with multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost's fragile piano at the outset, before building in increasing intensity and chaos, darting around the arpeggios of a operatic soprano in the background. The layered, studio vocals that follow are nothing short of direct Queen rip-offs, but that's no problem cause hardly any bands take advantage of the technique, so it's still fresh and bold more than three decades later. The epic, anthemic prelude reaches it's zenith with Ruess' glass-shattering finale. If this were the sort of material that propelled the entire record, Ruess, Dost and guitarist Jack Antonoff would have had another magnificent product on their hands.

Of course, you're expecting this paragraph to bring the battering ram of blinding criticism. Soon, but not yet. The full-fledged title track is a fitting companion to it's introduction. Although Ruess' vocals are refracted through miles of vocal effects, the result is not needlessly distracting and actually fuels the anticipation, with hints of the gospel-flavored bravado that paced Aim & Ignite hallmarks like "Benson Hedges" and "Barlights." Once the tribal rhythms kick in, Ruess channels fragments of Michael Jackson at the early-80s peak of his creativity and verve (pay attention for Ruess' "jack my style" line as proof), while Antonoff gets some well-placed riffs. It's a pulsing and energetic addition to the fun. cannon, and generally captures the type of growth and risky material I was expecting from this release. But before the number can even run its 4:37 duration, there's evidence things might go astray. At the 3:10 mark, the bridge veers off course with an grossly autotuned bridge sequence that is nearly absurd in its execution. Although apologists might argue it's clearly a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the overuse of autotune in contemporary pop music, the remainder of the record will bear out the futility of this claim. Thankfully, the return of the sing-along chorus along with good play-out lines from Antonoff combine to save the track from Bhasker's tricks.

The solid work continues on lead-off single, "We Are Young," a track that you've likely encountered with any interaction with pop culture over the past several months. The number features fun.'s first official outside contributor – R&B semi-star Janelle Monae – who provides vocals on the secondary chorus. Already broadening the group's audiences by thousands, if not millions – having already appeared in an episode of Glee and a car commercial – the tune's regimental beat and syncopated piano from Dost produce a decidedly throwback vibe, along with fuzzy guitar and bass from Antonoff. But, unlike so much of Aim & Ignite, Ruess' lyrics aren't very interesting or revealing, relying instead on repetition and volume to make its point. It's not among the unit's best work, but it's not dumpster-ready, either.

The initial restraint of "Carry On" – both Ruess' self-reflective lyrics and delivery as well as measured instrumentation from Dost and Antonoff – sets up the bolder and brighter chorus and verses that follow, and is more in keeping with the sort of production found on the band's debut. What sounds to be accordion – or at least computer-generated accordion – is a nice touch in the song's main body, adding a Celtic foundation new to the fun. oeuvre, before growing gradually heavier and culminating in an out-front solo for Antonoff, also a new addition to scoundscape for the trio. But, Bhasker's middling around at the end is a late-appearing annoyance to an otherwise solid effort.

Now, folks, here it comes: "It Gets Better" is just awful. The studio production is scattershot; the antithesis of authentic. There's traces of a decent melody there (see this video of the group performing it acoustically – far superior), but Bhasker just obliterates the material. It's be the worst thing the band has attempted to date. The same is largely true for "All Alone." Again, I think Ruess came up with an interesting idea (see live version) – which Dost and Antonoff usually translate into a musical vision, since Ruess doesn't play an instrument – but Bhasker does everything in his power to turn into hip-hop lunacy. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with straight-up hip-hop, or integrating influences of that genre into others – but fun. is a theatrical pop-rock outfit, not a zany Linkin Park. Fortunately, it does appear the band has some options for the number in live mode that aren't such an abomination. Similarly, "All Alright" reinforces Bhasker's preference to dominate with studio magic and prefabricated beats, although at least Dost's piano part is at least discernible here. Are the kid chorus vocals at the end cute or a ploy? At the same time, the blasting quasi-horns and bombastic beat of "One Foot" might as well be DJ Cool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" – WHERE IS THE REST OF THE BAND HERE?!! Ruess hardly has an interesting or non-redundant thing to say here save for his weeping bridge.

There's moments of salvation in both "Why Am I The One?" and "Stars." The former is a true ballad and earns a spot among the band's better ideas, with little interference of Bhasker. The latter, unfortunately, is sullied by Bhasker's dance beats background and cheesy computer horns, spoiling an earnest and sentimental lyrical approach from Ruess. Then the T-Pain-style autotune around the 2 minute mark renders the bulk of the long 6:53 unlistenable. How embarrassing for Ruess, who can belt top-register notes as well as any male vocalist, to be doctored with so explicitly. Still, it's better than the treatment Dost and Antonoff received for the bulk of the album (just look at Dost (left) in the promo photo at the top of this post. He's totally deer-in-the-headlights on this record). It would be truly fascinating to see what the pair's talents would have yielded had a producer who appreciated the group's skill had overseen the affair – perhaps someone like Steven McDonald, who was at the helm for Aim & Ignite.  

The bonus track, "Out On The Town," is promising – like much of the others – if the layers of studio gunk are peeled away to arrive at a more energetic, anthemic rock number.

Come for: "We Are Young"
Stay for: "Some Nights" / "Some Nights Intro"
You'll be surprised by: how epically awful much of the record is because of Bhasker.
Run far away from: "It Gets Better," "All Alright,""One Foot"

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