I bet I might have liked Fontanelle in college. Their comfortably experimental vibe is a none- too-dangerous concoction of influences from Stereolab to Curtis Mayfield, perfect for nights of rolling spliffs and talking boiled-down existentialism. Fontanelle would be the ideal response to your 19-year-old friends who think they’re the first to discover Miles Davis; see, you could say, kicking back on your yellow paisley second-hand sofa, people obviously not only dig him, they also play like him.
Comprised of guitarist Rex Ritter and keyboardist Andy Brown of Jessamine fame, and an additional revolving line-up that includes Paul Dickow, Brian Foote, Charlie Smyth, Michael Faeth, and Mat Morgan, the Portland, Oregon-based band churns out Rube Goldberg jazz machine jam sessions punctuated with a gee-whiz penchant for electronic noises. Funky, playful, and laid-back, Style Drift, their latest, is music for head-bobbers, not irony-mongers, and the band’s sincerity is their most appealing aspect. Vocals? Who needs ‘em? Lyrics to fit this space jazz would seem self-conscious, trite, or dated, and besides, the persistent electronic “wah- wah” that floats through each track is emotive enough.
Each song swoops into the next with remarkable ease, undoubtedly due to Fontanelle’s creative method: see what improvised studio bits sound most like complete songs and split them up, adding IDM work along the way. This could be the kiss of death for a less cohesive, looser band, but Fontanelle’s members play off each other like old friends and appear to know exactly where they’re going. The downfall is that, as old friends are wont to do, none of the band members really challenge each other—they’ve established an easy-going groove that works for what it is, but never feels particularly new or exciting.
As a result, Style Drift washes over in a wave of beeps and blurps and funky basslines with little discernable difference from one song to the next. The exception is the lovely title track, a 10-minute predetermined game of chance (they’re only fooling you into thinking it’s all improvised!) of shifting melodies, spoons-like drums, hand-claps, and a heartbeat bassline. The added length lets Fontanelle really show off; on other tracks, their music flows, sure, but to nowhere in particular.
Otherwise, it’s difficult to cite one track or another as particular stand-outs, simply because each sounds so similar to the next. If Fontanelle were willing to expand a bit beyond the very small niche they’ve cornered for themselves, we really might be on to something. As it is, they do offer an interesting combination of influences but never seem to rise above the musicians they cite.
That’s why this kind of tipsy, little bit hallucinatory melodic interplay is sure to be a stoner art student’s wet dream. It’s space jazz simplified and, really, a little easy. That said, Fontanelle certainly has some wildly talented band members who know their own particular style inside out. Still, when you are so engrained in a specific style, it’s hard to be truly experimental. Style Drift is very groovy but very inoffensive, and if you’re trying to push some boundaries, “inoffensive” should be a horribly repulsive term. Fluidity is a beautiful thing, but it only takes you so far.
Yet as an introduction to jam bands and jazz, Fontanelle are pretty decent. College kids just learning how very many genres there are besides alt-rock and alt-country could find them intriguing and blissfully free of that pervasive college-rock irony. Style Drift may not be the most exciting album of the year, but it is highly listenable and entertaining. If nothing else, Fontanelle know the style they’re after extremely well and they have a lot of fun achieving it.