The Fairburn Royals: From a Window Way Above

[5 May 2003]

By Patrick Schabe

Perhaps it’s the water, or the heat, or both in the form of humidity, but there’s just something about the Southeast that seems to crank out excellent bands. You can point to Chapel Hill or Athens and the long lineage of bands that have steadily trickled out of the area to see how rock and pop have been carved and shaped by the acts in the area for decades. Maybe it’s the boiled peanuts.

The Fairburn Royals are yet another indie rock band from Athens, a town whose economy must surely find its foundation in music stores and clubs. It’s a scene that’s certainly crowded, and pushing to the front of the line must be a challenge on par with landing a major record deal. However, with a little bit of time, polish, and maturity, the Fairburn Royals are a band that has the possibility of doing both. The ingredients are already there: influenced by the Pixies, Pavement, and Wilco; the type of balance between rock and pop that helps keep Weezer afloat; and an obvious interest in writing varied songs across a range of sound, with the talent to back it up.

The one possible crutch is the lyrical content. It says something when the press kit for a band points out the lyrics as “simplistic”, and although Two Sheds goes on to assert that, “when put together in the context of a full record of songs, the lyrical composition actually makes a statement about everyday life”, this doesn’t do much to help a band sell individual songs. In truth, at times the lyrics come off as young, almost naïve, and a little thin, which is somehow compounded by vocalist Matt Lisle’s voice, which has a high, youthful quality that makes for some good listening, but works against the breeziness of the lyrics. When, in “Anti-Drug”, Lisle sings, “When I come down from that high, I’ll blame it on a girl / On a girl / On a girl / On a girl / On a girl”, the repetition seems simple indeed, and there’s not much to convince you that the song is an ironic comment on the generic quality of brokenhearted rock songs about girls.

A handicap like this might sink any band. What makes the Fairburn Royals stand out, and what makes them worthy of continued attention, is that they still pull it off. For instance, “Anti-Drug”‘s music holds you captive, based on a rough, bass-and-guitar-driven riff that seems to play with Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme”, and Lisle actually adds a desperate, slightly menacing edge to his voice that fits the song nicely. Really, the Fairburn Royals have an innate sense of how to work hooks and melodies into their songs, and it’s the music that completely saves them. The lead-off track, “The Projectionist”, even goes as far as admitting, “Well I want to write the words that will / That’ll come to change the world / But there’s nothing left for me to say / That I haven’t said before / I’ll say it again, and again”, but it’s almost an admission of honesty rather than defeat. “The Projectionist” is a “life theme” song, stating that it’s better to take a step back and try to see the world from a more objective perspective, and to only project yourself onto it from a clear, safe, and informed distance. In a very real sense, it’s an approach that grounds the topics of From a Window Way Above‘s watercolor songs, and in fact gives the disc its title. That it’s embedded in a great Replacements-meets-the Wonder Stuff jangle-pop tune makes it all the better.

Looking back over what I’ve written so far, I don’t feel like I’ve done a very good job of convincing anyone to seek out the band and this album, or even made it sound very good … but it is! It’s just not going to grip you with the same emotional intensity of, say, Surfer Rosa or the first Weezer. But the Fairburn Royals rock. From a Window Way Above is littered with examples of this, but for my money it’s “Japan” that really sells the band. Indie rock is flush with songs idolizing Japan and its culture, but where the Royals’ version succeeds is in wearing its heart on its sleeve. The protagonist of the song is really just looking to run away to somewhere else, and Japan sounds as good as anything. In fact, the only reason he needs to pick Japan as a destination is because there are bonus tracks on all the albums there, and as the song progresses, the idealized vision of Japan becomes more and more obviously absurd. Sad and funny, the song manages to capture a mood, run it along some great vocal hooks, and even throw in some changes and free-form guitar mess for variety. “Japan”, or “Be My Punk Rock Friend”, or “Lonesome Townie Blues” all take a very blunt look at social life and, in the end, really do wind up making statements about “everyday life”.

Of course, not all the songs are so decidedly witty, and even a couple of songs that do try to be witty don’t quite work. A song dissing a cheerleader? These guys are supposed to be post-college aged. Come on. However, the rock instrumental “La Fuerza del Destino”, the folksy “Paint the Night”, or the ‘60s inflected “Necessities” are all just sticky enough to find homes in your head, and each shows a band that is willing to experiment and take chances with their sound. Sometimes it works better than others (the jury’s out on the entirely backwards-recorded music of “These Aren’t Mistakes”), but it’s that bravery and their honesty that give the Fairburn Royals the potential to be great. From a Window Way Above is the sophomore effort from the band, following a very well-received debut in The Sunshine Showdown, and they’ve not only managed to avoid the fabled “slump”, but they’ve also kept themselves in line with the contenders for a place in the permanent history of Athens music.

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