Fine China: The Jaws of Life

[5 September 2005]

By David Bernard

Fine China want so desperately to be British—that’s the way it seems, at least. They want to play cricket on a lush green while indulging in a tea break (one scone or two, my dear chap) and refer to soccer as football. Clich&#233d stereotypes aside, I wondered if perhaps they were British. As far as I knew at the outset of this review they were American, but I’ve been wrong before. Therefore, I developed a method for determining their origin. I assessed a number of different categories when, taken as a whole, would prove their country of citizenship.

The Look: One glance at the photos in the liner notes make this one a no-brainer. They’re dressed as if they’re holding tickets for a cruise on Duran Duran’s yacht, prepping themselves to playfully run from exotic women covered in animal-print body paint. Their hair is scrubbed and shampooed, styled lightly with a pleasant-smelling (one can only assume) gel. Thin as rails and tanned only in the Neutrogena Instant Bronze manner, one struggles to picture them carrying their own amps onto the stage. And, oh my God, is that a plaid ascot?
Result: British.

The Sound: Borrowing more from recent Starflyer 59 albums than the Cure or Badly Drawn Boy, their sound is layers on top of layers. Guitars ring pristinely, drums are slaves to the metronome, and cautious vocals slice through the mix with trebled ease. This is more Pro-Tools than the Smiths or New Order would have known what to do with. But then again, Starflyer 59’s recent pop records would not exist without the Beatles and other Britpop bands. It’s a polished sound that might not sit well with everyone, but it certainly works excellently here. A few different textures could have improved the overall sound, and the lack of variety presents lulls in the middle of the CD that are saved by up-tempo closers. This category is too tough to call, so I’ll give it to the British to prove my point.
Result: British.

Names: Thom is satisfactorily British. Greg and Josh aren’t. Robert Withem, the lead singer, sounds exotic enough to be from somewhere other than America, but the evidence is lacking.
Result: American.

Lyrics: The words are rarely the focus of the songs even though vocals are front and center in the mix. The melodies are what are important (see next paragraph). The lyrics function but don’t shine. “R-Rated Film” laments a dirty, dirty movie (how un-“Girls on Film”) that makes people want to have sex using oral contraceptives:

“Panning to the left we see, /
Evidence that leads us to believe, /
‘Life could be this full for me’, /
Pills ensure that no one will conceive”.

Even the lyrics to “Don’t Frown” accuse someone of being a killjoy. Is it possible that Mr. Withem has not projected a comment intended for himself upon someone else? “Are You on Drugs?” investigates pills of a different kind, though love still sneaks into the picture: “Everybody knows that it’s not love, / Are you on drugs?” Depressing lyrics over a catchy beat and catchier instruments are certainly not new, but they do have a certain Britishness to them. No instances of “lift”, “car park”, “torch”, or “colour” appear, but one song is titled “Bivouac”, which sounds like a place where a European could be found. The lyrics often retread the same topics about love, loneliness, and apologizing. Never terrible, they could benefit from better rhyming couplets than “Somebody said I’m ‘nice’, / It tweaked me cause they’re right”.
Result: Too difficult to determine.

Melodies: If catchiness were a disease that one could catch, Fine China would have caught it, and they would slowly be communicably transmitting it to the world. Opener “Rated-R Movie” is a sublime pop song. Melodies are strong and memorable, certain chord changes are surprises, and the band even drop beats (on purpose, of course) during the verse. Songs are less inventive elsewhere and not as expertly crafted, but they are all good. Often, choruses far surpass their verse and bridge counterparts, creating half-satisfying songs. Even so, the half that satisfies is often amazing and makes up for the remainder. In a rare move, Fine China end their CD with the most upbeat track, “Person of the Month”. A galloping drum machine propels the dance-ready masterpiece. This song aches of being European, and since it’s the last song, and therefore the one I remember the best, it overrides the others.
Result: British.

By analyzing the scientific process capable of determining ethnic origin based upon a mostly arbitrary set of criteria, Fine China are obviously a British pop band. Science can often wrongly diagnose, as is the case here. Fine China are actually from (drum roll, please) Phoenix, Arizona. England is also an arid land consistently reaching upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, right? I thought so. Science and art fuse flawlessly once again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/finechina-jawsoflife/