[2 February 2006]
The marriage of electronic beats and pop melodies has recently become fashionable. It has always been looming on the outskirts, then Postal Service delivered an imaginative album that was much more than a mere experiment. It was artistic, catchy, and, ultimately, quite good. Right now, that album stands as one of the defining records of the sub-genre, which is a terrible thing for every artist attempting to make his or her own mark in music because they must be incessantly compared to the Postal Service. On Formative, Toothfairy don’t share much with Postal Service, other than the electronic backing track. The result is an album with much greater lyrical achievement, but an overall flaccid follow through that consistently gives the Postal Service the upper hand.
Toothfairy began as instrumental exercises. Then Chad Crouch, the man behind the music, decided to flesh out nine of the tracks with vocals. And what a fleshing he gave them. One peek at the lyric booklet reveals words, lots and lots of words. The words read great on their own, excellent stanzas of prose, but as lyrics they seem just slightly off the mark. The stress often falls on odd syllables, and the ends of lines rarely, if ever, rhyme. As a package, this more closely resembles rap than electronic pop because of the repetitive background music and verbose lyricist. Unfortunately, though, where rap commonly relies on excellent wordplay and strong hooks, Toothfairy are lacking in both departments.
It’s never a good sign when, after hearing the first third of an album, you’re able to construct the following two-thirds in your mind with little deviance from the way it actually sounds. The beats and backing music are rarely striking. The only thing striking about them is the similarity among songs. The tempo and structure march on unchanged. The songs rarely shift sections, instead powering ahead, unaware that they should change.
When variations do occur, they aren’t used to their full potential. The background of “Stephanie, My First Crush” includes a guitar sample that is, at first, a welcome new sound, until it repeats the same lick over and over. “Humdrum” uses a clever piano lick to boost the melody. But overall, the songs don’t benefit from being pushed forward by the artist.
The melodies often suffer from the same malady as the music. Crouch’s delivery is laid back. His vocal style would never suit belting out standards or crooning in any way. Often, he’s an afterthought in the mix, his whispering voice barely breaking above the surface of the backing beats. This can be a shame with the amount of effort put into the lyrics. “Down in the Developments” is as clever and literate (and catchy) as Crouch gets. It’s a conversational style that can be annoying as often as it’s endearing: “One day we were walking in the only development / On the top of our hill they called it ‘High Tor’ / The houses over there are from the ‘60s or something / The one with the Grim Reaper trees was abandoned.” And it goes on and on like this.
Crouch includes a note at the end of his lyric booklet, explaining that the songs on Formative are inspired by real people and places he knew as a child. He writes, “One should expect artistic license and extrapolation for the service of story, meter, and rhyme.” While it’s nice that he acknowledges his relationship with the way his uses his words, the results are tepid at best, even with the nice little note of explanation. With more developed arrangements and stronger melodies, a guy with Crouch’s lyrical creativity could create amazing songs and albums. Unfortunately, for the time being, he’ll have to live down comparisons to better bands that have already covered this territory.