Trepidation—that was this reviewer’s first twinge after reading this quote from Fine China’s singer/musician/songwriter Rob Withem: “My favorites are bands like The Smiths, Tears For Fears, A-Ha, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Suede, Kraftwerk, etc.” Okay, “Autobahn” I liked, and Gary Numan’s “Cars” was rather catchy, too. But apart from tracks inspired by automotive subjects, exploring synth-pop has been, for me, analogous to visiting Starbucks—all kinds of blends, nothing much that suits me.
I am happy to report that Fine China, a group of four synthusiasts from fast-sprawling Phoenix, far exceeded my expectations. Yes, they intentionally hawk the ‘New Romantic’ look of the early ‘80s. Examining their publicity photo, one is reminded of air-brushed images of Haircut 100, Duran Duran, or early Talk Talk—before Mark Hollis turned that band into an artistically challenging AOR concept. After hearing When the World Sings, there is hope that Withem and company can grow and evolve along similar lines.
The album bubbles along like one of Thomas Dolby’s Casio-driven, solid-state experiments, but there’s a shadowy somberness that overlays its songs like a fog. On the most interesting track “Labor Saving Device”, Withem slides in a few barbs directed at unmotivated and amoral peers. “We Rock Harder” walks head-long into the metal-rap wave and emerges still defiant. There is also an unabashed spiritual dynamic at play throughout; Withem and his cohorts are Christians, and they sulk about in a post-Christian environment of their own simulation. In short, there’s a charged atmosphere about this record that allows its electronica to serve as more than a retro dance vibe.
When the World Sings is sugary-sweet in your mouth, but bitter down in the depths of the soul. A notable first outing from a band working in a relatively passe medium.