It seems as though Fang Island is still grappling with the concept of the trade-off (“Remove something, replace it with something of equal or greater value, everyone’s happy”). Their self-titled debut spun out song after song of adrenalizing, dazzling riff-driven rock. For what it was, it was damn well near perfect. Vocals were scant, and served more to enrich the music’s head-banging, high-fiving appeal than tell stories. The band’s follow-up to that welcome bludgeoning, Major, feels compromised precisely because it has all but turned its back on what made them exceptional.
Fang Island have dumped their mathiness for a smoother, tidier, less gripping, and less rewarding sound. They sound defanged. The lyrics are feeble, and more often than not you’ll be wishing there was just another guitar in their place. Apparently Fang Island are better off scatting and yelling nonsensically than they are singing. There are still lightning-fast 17th fret freak outs for those who care to sit through some of the dead zones (“Chompers”), but they are outnumbered by the throwaway stadium tracks (“Chime Out,” “Understand”). We were spoiled with Fang Island, it seems.
Major is underlined by a reluctance to grow up. It is an eager search for that sweet spot between naivety and the legal drinking age. Lead-off track “Kindergarten” takes a looping bit of atonal piano and suitably matches it up with the words: “All I know/ I learned in Kindergarten.” It’s a charming sentiment, but the song doesn’t have anything close to the game-set-match hook to yank you in the way “Careful Crossers” did. Elsewhere, “Victorinian” comes off as some sort of grade school motivational speech: “What if I don’t get my chance to hug the flame/ Or even hold a spark?” The terse, popping guitar structures are replaced by clunky pianos that only serve to intensify these lighthearted but ultimately callow convictions.
As could be inferred by the record’s title, Fang Island still have an appreciation and an ear for the festive quality that the major key is capable of instilling. “Dooney Rock” is a merry, Gaelic-inspired track that transforms into a highly entertaining shredding contest. “Sisterly” wins you over on warm fuzzies alone, while the rhythm guitar proves more compelling than any of the lead work. However, considering that the band recycles part of the same chord progression on “Regalia,” it seems like it might be time to explore some other avenues.
With Fang Island, nearly every song was memorable, and for different reasons. Major, by contrast, is much more monotone, both on a musical and an expressive level. Nothing here brandishes the physicality of “Daisy” or carries the emotional heft that “Sideswiper” did (although the opening ditties on “Make Me,” by far the best track on the album, are acceptable substitutes). It’s all pleasant, listenable and disposable. Even some of the juicier riffs – like the breathless chopping on “Asunder,” which still isn’t strong enough to sustain a five-minute song on its own – don’t sound as spirited or unpredictable as they did.
While Major has a good solid handful of inspired moments, none of this material comes close to approaching the plane as that Fang Island were operating on before. More than anything, it makes me want to listen to their first album.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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