It’s a rare feat for a musician to strike a true balance between artistic and entertaining on one particular piece. There is a ton of fun party music out there, and there is also a ton of artsy stuff that nobody in their right mind would ever want to listen to if they’re looking to have a good time. The more and more I think about it, the more clear it becomes that entertaining music and artistically-aimed music are almost mutually exclusive. Yet I can think of a few counterexamples to this observation: specifically, the records We Are The Only Friends We Have and Somewhere In The Between by Piebald and Streetlight Manifesto, respectively. Each of these records is elegantly composed at every turn, both lyrically and musically, while still retaining a sense of enjoyment: singalong choruses, rousing melodies, etc. It’s as if you can tell that the bands understand that music can be both artistic and entertaining at the same time.
I think my example above constitutes an ‘exception that proves the rule;’ the fact that I can only think of two examples out of all the music I listen to goes to shows that this is indeed a rare feat. Recently, I added another record to this exclusive list: the Slow Dance To Soft Rock EP by The Front Bottoms. It was randomly given to me by a good friend earlier this spring, and I’ve listened to the album basically nonstop since. The Front Bottoms are based out of Bergen County, New Jersey and play quirky, emotional, energetic indie rock: imagine the musical child of The Mountain Goats, Vampire Weekend, and Franz Ferdinand. The band is composed of singer/guitarist/lyricist Brian Sella and drummer Matt Uychich. They have a massive sound for a two-piece band, as their music is full of other flourishes like horns and strings, a sound which is captured in live performance by playing the samples through the PA system. Their new self-titled LP (released 9/6/2011) is, technically speaking, a compilation album, as six of the songs are lifted directly off the aforementioned Slow Dance To Soft Rock EP. The other six songs on the record are brand new for this release.
The record begins with one of the strongest of the new tracks, “Flashlight.” Beginning with a simple acoustic guitar melody, the song quickly tears into a frantic post-punk inspired groove, complete with a subtle, understated guitar lead. Then singer Brian Sella chimes in with a line that simultaneously sets the tone for the whole album and is strongly characteristic of the band’s lyrical content: “Please fall asleep so I can take pictures of you and hang them in my room.” Creepy, yes, but the lyric seems to be a perfect microcosm of their style.
“Flashlight” segues cleanly into the band’s most recognizable (and in my opinion best) song, “Maps.” This song is one of the ones previously released on Slow Dance To Soft Rock. The two songs are very similar, with mostly the same drum pattern tying them together. This song showcases the band’s use of non-standard instrumentation, as the track is held together by a simple yet memorable string orchestration. The second verse to the song also contains what might be my favorite lyric in any song ever: “She sees these visions, she feels emotion / She says that I cannot go, she sees my plane in the ocean / But what about your friends, don’t you love ’em enough to stay? / And I said, if I don’t leave now then I will never get away / Let me be a blue raft, on a blue sea I’ll blend right in.” What always manages to impress me about Sella’s lyrics is his ability to bare his soul while still making the listener want to sing along. It’s a truly rare talent, and if any one trait about The Front Bottoms’ music will get them recognized, that will be the one.
Another notable track on the album is “Swimming Pool.” Unlike “Flashlight” and “Maps,” the song has a lazier, more straight-up indie rock groove with piano accompaniments. Sella’s lyrics continue to take center stage here: “Follow an orange extension cord under a carpet to a closet door feeding a blacklight that will someday make me very, very, very, very, very rich.” The force of his lyrics is greatly multiplied by his distinctive delivery that lies somewhere in between Aaron Weiss’ tortured spoken words that he delivers for mewithoutYou and the pop-punk yelp of Travis Shettel, of Piebald fame. One of the other cool tracks newly recorded for this album is “The Boredom Is The Reason I Started Swimming. It’s Also The Reason I Started Sinking.” This song is a little simpler than some of the others, with very little guitar. The melody consists of percussive bells that lend the song a light, almost twee feel. Lyrically, the song oozes post-emo confessionalism: “I could stand up, I could man up, it’s just so convenient to be fragile.” The more and more I hear his lyrics, the more and more I am impressed and inspired by his ability to confess such intimate things on record.
The front of the CD has a sticker that describes the album as “Fiercely addictive, oddly endearing… a cinematic view of suburban angst and summer love gone awry.” I think that is a perfect description of the music of The Front Bottoms. The rhythms are fun; infectious. The melodies are upbeat and memorable. At the same time, Sella’s lyrics display serious artistic skill; he is a legitimate poet. After listening to their music as much as I have, I get the sense that they play their songs simply because they love to do it, which I feel that people can sense just from listening (even if it’s a casual listen). At the same time, I question the decision to re-release Slow Dance To Soft Rock. Even though it’s not strictly speaking a re-release, I don’t like the way they intertwine the songs together on the album. One of the things I loves so much about Slow Dance To Soft Rock was that it was a very cohesive record; the songs has a certain flow that make the songs in combination better than each of them considered alone. I think that is lost by the addition and interspersing of the new songs. If I were The Front Bottoms, I would have released the new songs as a separate EP and let it be. However, re-releasing the songs to put out a full-length record is definitely a smart business decision, as a full-length is more likely to attract attention. When it comes down to it, though, it doesn’t matter at all because the songs are so god-damn good. If you listen to this record and really like what you hear, I strongly recommend rearranging the songs to recreate Slow Dance To Soft Rock, because I think the flow between songs adds a lot to the album. Either way, keep an eye on The Front Bottoms. They are right on the verge of real success.