[10 December 2009]
French Miami is one of those bands that makes a big sound without seeming to have to try. Their self-titled debut album feels epic, despite the band having only three members and the record clocking in at a brisk 35 minutes. The Take Root Records edition of the album is a wider-scale reissue of the original, which came out in 2008. I missed out on the band the first time around, so hearing French Miami with fresh ears is a treat.
The band builds its songs on repeated patterns, often a jagged guitar riff, but sometimes a vocal refrain or synth line. Often they pound these patterns into the ground, but French Miami seems to have uncanny timing. Just as you’re about to get sick of a riff, the band changes it up or the song ends. No track here tops five minutes, and that brevity keeps the songs focused when they could easily drift off into interminable drones or aimless prog-style wankfests. There’s a tension to these songs, an edge that sounds like the band could careen into anything from hardcore punk to industrial to doom metal at the drop of a hat. But they don’t, instead investing the tracks with a tightly wound energy that makes the whole album feel fresh and exciting.
The record opens with a minute-long intro that sets the stage for second track “God Damn Best”. Gang vocals shout “Whoa-oh-oh” over an ominous bassline and subtle percussion before reciting a couple of lines that turn out to be the first words of the next song. “God Damn Best” begins with a heck of a guitar riff from Richard Curtis while vocalist Jason Heiselmann comes in repeating the earlier lines on his own, but no less intensely. Heiselmann also plays a pulsing bass accompaniment on a baritone guitar while drummer Chris Crawford effortlessly slips into the groove. Curtis’s riff on the third track, “Science Fiction”, starts as a catchy pattern, but with repetition begins to resemble a siren. Synth chords and tom-heavy drums keep the song on course, and the riff changes at precisely the right moment to keep up your interest. The song also features a major slowdown halfway through, but the band resists the urge to go for the big finish and speed back up, instead letting the energy of the track ebb naturally.
French Miami is full of curveballs like this. Just when you think you’ve got the band pegged, they’ll toss in something like “Windwar”, an atmospheric, synth-based instrumental that doesn’t sound like much on the surface but turns out to be the perfect mid-album break from the intensity surrounding it. French Miami also seem to coat everything in a thin layer of distortion fuzz, which has the effect of making the instruments sound very similar. In some cases it almost gets to the point where it’s difficult to tell if the sounds in each track are being played on guitars, synths, or both at once. With the type of hard-edged synth-rock the band is making, this is a very effective tactic. While all of this is going on, Crawford’s drumming holds the trio together with simple beats that emphasize the groove in these songs. Heiselmann’s singing is a match for the intensity of the music, from the shouting of “God Damn Best” to the triumphant “Multi Caliber Rifles” to the melancholy in “S.F.O.” French Miami packs a lot into this record while retaining a signature sound, and most of it really succeeds.