I first became aware of Davis Fetter when he opened for Black Francis in March of 2013. Fetter appeared onstage with his Buddy Holly glasses, wife-beater, motorcycle jacket and pompadour (shaved on both sides for an edgier, punk-a-billy look) and might have fit in with some strange recast version of Happy Days if not for his blue Gibson Archtop and friendly, ernest introductions to his his songs and greetings to the growing crowd.
The minimalist show, though billed as “Acoustic” was very much plugged with Fetter’s hollow-bodied axe the closest thing to “acoustic” in the lineup. Both Kim Shattuck and Black Francis jammed on solid-bodies for their entire sets. Fetter’s own set was inventive, employing pedal-cued sparse recordings to make up for the lack of a band around him and showcasing palm-mute oriented solos and creative guitar-body percussion.
Fetter’s best feature proved to be his voice, which complemented his skilled guitar work and carried the set. Fetter isn’t an operatic show-off, but a realistic crooner whose low speaking voice escalates to tough but well-tuned high notes. Never falling into the trappings of a repeat falsetto, Fetter offers both pleading love songs and driving rockers with equal aplomb.
It was at this show that Fetter debuted his new single, entitled “Look What You’ve Done to the Boy”. The studio version of the single is a much more richly layered experience than the minimalist live version (which also had its merit). Unlike Fetter’s previous single “Born”, which drives as hard in a solo set as it does in the studio, “Look What You’ve Done to the Boy” finds a more thorough voice in the studio.
Live, Fetter employed the audience for the chorus of the new single. While the emotion of whatever whoever did to “the boy” was surely felt, there wasn’t quite the charge that warranted the audience chants. That charge is most assuredly felt in the studio version. The rattling bass line and accompanying leads focus the listener on the song and urge a continued listen. When Fetter’s emotional lyrics kick in he invites the listener into his half of a private, final conversation during which he modulates his voice from scratchy lows to clear crescendoed high notes, to illustrate his conflict.
The music continues its smart accompaniment of Fetter’s lyrics, knowing when to cut out the percussion for a lyrical point and when to crash back in with a heavier rhythm. There is just enough distortion here to feel like a more “modern rock” track, less rock-a-billy than something out of Depeche Mode’s more electric guitar-fueled periods. This lends a classicism to the currency of Fetter’s work and gives it just a tinge of timelessness.
That said, what exactly Fetter’s style of rock is might be hard to pin down. There is surely that 1950s pompadour feel, yet in none of the tracks that Fetter has offered is there a true “do-wop” sensibility, nor is Fetter reinventing the Grease soundtrack here. Especially on “Look What You’ve Done to the Boy”, Fetter collects his influences for a unique amalgam that more than holds the interest of the experienced rock fan (or critic).
The video for “Look What You’ve Done to the Boy” (directed by Haley Reed) adds a further layer. Fetter’s dual facets. Featuring live footage from the March show at the Coach House, band footage and footage of (presumably) a young Davis Fetter on stage, the video also features Fetter walking toughly in his usual regalia (leather, glasses and hair), smoking a cigarette and addressing the camera directly. Between each emotional call to the camera’s eye, Fetter pauses and looks away, betraying his assertive vocals with a tentative, defensive discomfort his side of the conversation is causing him.
The fact that the entire video is shot in a richly contrasted black and white does little to move Fetter’s music into a specific category (is this a 2013 video or something videotaped from MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1990?). This is, of course, a good thing. Davis Fetter may not be setting out to defy convention, in fact, all evidence points to the concept that he’s setting out only to play rock and roll, but he is creating a unique sound that is scarcely an easy fit in any one sub-genre of rock. Before any major label debut takes place, Fetter may find pressure to conform and embrace the mainstream. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen. Davis Fetter’s music may continue to evolve, but listening to where he is now, what’s been done to the boy has resulted in one hell of a promising start for this Orange County rocker. Encore, please.