There’s nothing really wrong with earnestness —certainly worse personality traits exist—and yet, few approaches to the world can come across as so utterly annoying. That comes in large part because—not to sound to Wildean about it—people who have painfully little else to offer employ earnestness regularly and wantonly If you can’t be interesting, at least be sincere about it.
At least that’s the tack taken by Fiction Family, the unholy amalgam of Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman and Nickel Creek multi-instrumentalist Sean Watkins, on its self-titled debut. In the band’s press material, Foreman explains the side project was mostly for themselves and their love of the songs, which might explain why there’s so little interest to anyone else in the world. Trading in the type of painfully emotional acoustic rock that’s been getting frat boys laid around campfires for decades now—Fiction Family is not on Dave Matthews’ ATO label for nothing—they set out to say absolutely nothing new in a way that you’ve heard countless times before and succeed with flying colours.
Things burst right out of the gate with the radio ready “When She’s Near”, a longing-for-love pop song so easy and formulaic it could have been written by a computer program. Armed with lyrics like, “When she’s near / The new year’s here / And there’s not a resolution / That I can’t do”, it goes from plucked verse to clapping, stomping chorus to hushed bridge and all over again; its structure matches perfectly with its Hallmark-card sentiments. If this kind of marginally more-involved elevator music is indicative of Foreman/Waktins’s lifestyle, it’s really no wonder the object of their affection has failed to notice them: The band’s first single proves so indistinguishable as to be mistaken for camouflage.
Painfully earnest, thoroughly rote declarations of love show up throughout Fiction Family, though as sincere as the duo is attempting to be, that any real emotion comes through proves rare. It’s like they’re writing about love solely because thoughtful, sensitive songwriters are supposed to write about it. On the sparse, mewling “Not Sure”, for instance, Watkins drones out the lines, “How long till I don’t feel / Like you’re still right here / Reminding me of what is real?” like someone who neither cares whether there’s anyone beside him nor is at all unsure of what’s real, instead burying himself in nailing the his nasally lilt.
Of course, maybe that only seems insincere because Foreman and Watkins are willing to spread their sincerity around scattershot, pulling the trigger and hoping it’ll hit some target. On the song right after the one where Watkins was wondering how long it would take him to get over this deep, meaningful love that keeps him grounded and all that, Foreman drops the line “You and I were always closest friends / It’s women that make enemies of men.” That’s certainly a much more poetic way of saying “bros before hos, dude”, but it certainly doesn’t dispel any images of the pair as trading on love’s cliches—this song marks the second in less than five that they trot out the old “love is blind” chestnut for some kind of emotional credibility. To make matters worse, though the song, betrayal, is a little yarn about a man’s girlfriend leaving with his best friend, and it’s fitted with the same quasi-emotional finery as the rest, never rising above a faux-soul-searching, pained delivery and learn-to-play guitar melodies.
If a recommendation can be made of the group, it’s consistentcy: Every song on the album is basically interchangeable with any other, in turn easily swappable for any other radio friendly acoustic rock with a certain wolf-eyed sincerity. It’s ideal for anyone who looks for music that doesn’t demand any attention or effort in any way.
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