Three is the key, a magic trinity of band members (3) and number of albums released (again 3) converging in a powerful sonic force that makes Open Up and Say Awesome the kind of summer record you want to crank up while driving somewhere fast.
These are tunes fueled by hormonal urges and the wounds of disappointment, the kind of music that makes you remember back to the blush of youth and those hurts and relationships: it was the best of times and also the worst. Ultimate Fakebook has gotten even tighter on this, their third release, though perhaps they have opted for a little less stylistic variety than previously.
For those unfamiliar with this power trio out of Manhattan, Kansas, think Green Day meeting Weezer in a sonically impressive way. Coming from metal roots, UFB resists easy categorization, claiming membership in the disparate worlds of punk, power pop, emo, nerd pop and Britpop. Still, their music sounds familiar enough.
For a trio, these lads are able to wrest a very full sound out of their latest collection of harder-edged teen anthems. Guitarist Bill McShane gives us a little darker tinge to his lyrics compared with his last go-round, serving up a dozen new tracks of frustration, observation and amplification. His vocals convey credible angst, backed by occasional harmonies, but the real feat is the kind of fullness achieved by McShane’s guitars, Nick Colby’s bass and the energetic drumming of Eric Melin.
In 2000, Ultimate Fakebook released the critically lauded This Will Be Laughing Week, a strong album that offered tantalizing hints of different musical territory. The touches of piano in “A Million Hearts”, the psychedelic metal feel of “Perfect Hair”, and the unplugged, amiable jaunt that was the title song were refreshing departures from the standard anguished power rock cuts.
That was then, back when Epic had hopes of the public buying into Ultimate Fakebook as the next Blink 182. The major label success never really materialized, through no lack of talent or energy on the part of the group. The trio tours relentlessly, but even with the live exposure the sales numbers did not pan out and so the group again finds itself back again on an independent label (Initial).
The good news is that they seem no different, no more embittered from their major label experience, and certainly no worse for their tribulations. Credit Ed Rose for some of that. Rose, who produced UFB’s previous efforts, produces the new album as well. He again captures the sonic magic that is Ultimate Fakebook and not much has changed. McShane continues to write lyrics that might be a little too clever for a mass market more excited by the off-color language of those less talented. On Open Up and Say Awesome, the trio seems to concentrate on tightening up what they see as their best bet stylistically—the power guitar-driven teen anthems of love and relationships—which lends itself well to the upcoming summer months. While it may be a step forward, it’s not a large step.
On this third CD, it’s almost as if the creative reins have been drawn in a bit. While the dozen tracks offered here are plenty fine, there’s not as much diversity displayed as the last time around, and perhaps that’s a calculated move to please the biggest part of their young audience. Fans of the quirky stuff will have to wait and see if there’s anything coming down the line; right now it’s just good fun rocking music of the first order, similar to Treble Charger, DumDums, or Jimmy Eat World.
This is music that could fit well into most any teen soundtrack (again, perhaps this is another hope for the group). It’s big on beat and there are hooks galore, but it takes many listens to get the subtleties within Open Up and Say Awesome. This less adventurous collection features strong songwriting and serves up a full 42 minutes of rock.
With the emphasis on harder driving songs, the results prove a bit same-sounding if you try to take it all in at one listen. These songs fare better taken one at a time rather than collectively, and that allows you the chance to really savor Melin’s spectacular drumming, and how much sound McShane and Colby get out of their guitars.
The CD opens with the surprisingly darker strains of “Wrestling Leap Year”, a tirade of orders and complaints against a lover’s power struggle, and a musical sign that Ultimate Fakebook doesn’t always do things the way other bands do.
“The Scheme to Listen No More” sounds the more logical opener, a mere 1:35 of powerful catchiness, with nice harmonies backing up its tale of the boy who broke free from a bad relationship: “Just a wish and a wink and now he’s busting out like someone else entire”. Similarly, “Before You Leave” is another caffeinated, edgy rocker that clocks in under the three-minute mark and features a guest guitar solo by Stephen Egerton (of All).
“Inside Me, Inside You” vies for best track on the CD, working off a great guitar riff that supports the rally cry to kick down the castle walls of all those pretty faces. This is the epitome of power through music and belief, an outsider’s anthem to greatness yet to come, and catchy in the best pop traditions.
“Forever Forever” is a sweet song of reassurance that employs harmonies and a soft middle bridge amid its sonic guitars and plaintive vocals, and even features some keyboards courtesy of James Dewees (from The Get Up Kids).
“When I’m With You, I’m OK” is sort of an updated Cheap Trick single for the new millennium, another outsider viewpoint proclaiming, “When I’m with you I’m okay, my skies are blue every day”. “Girl, Here’s Another Lie” shows McShane’s softer side, a story of willful deception to hide the fact that he’ll be leaving soon. This one really begs for a movie soundtrack placement.
“Combat Fatigue” employs nice arrangements (and keyboards again from Dewees) in a softer ballad that examines a couple’s relationship approaching a mutual end, while getting tired of the fighting. “Valentines” discusses the charming awkwardness of trying to screw up the courage to make the approach and then win someone over. “Red Elbows” is the closest thing to that quirky stuff from their previous release, a slower tempo ballad of a song that explores indecision.
“Goddamn Dance Craze” serves up tongue-in-cheek advice promoting dance as cure-all for a generation, an invitation to the kind of fever pitch known to the Beatles’ audiences: “Who cares if it’s all been done darlin’, Tonight just feeling dumb’s good enough”. Similar ideas are explored on the CD’s final track “Popscotch Party Rock”, wherein McShane gets to explore his inner Brian May.
This is radio and soundtrack friendly rock with a sonic edge that grows on you with repeated listens. Ultimate Fakebook deserve more exposure than they’ve gotten, especially because their considerable talents compare favorably to those who do get the media coverage. Whether you are in, barely out of, or fondly remember your teens, Open Up and Say Awesome is party time for a younger generation rocking out. The good news is that the price of admission is only the cost of a CD—this summer, we’re all invited.