Fancey: Schmancey

[20 January 2008]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Todd Fancey, the guitarist and guy-whose-name-you-don’t-know from Canada’s best band, the New Pornographers, is really into ‘70s pop music. An indisputably talented musician—he orchestrates for, and plays, many of the instruments on this, his second record—Fancey’s elegant work in his bread-and-butter supergroup goes unsung far too often. Indeed, while critics fawn over Neko Case and Carl Newman, and indie hipsters go green bananas whenever Dan Bejar takes the stage, all seem content to allow Fancey (and his equally unsung rhythm section) to fade into the background. That’s a drag, but it has much more to do with the solo output from those three burgeoning stars than it does with their value in the New Pornos. Put bluntly, while Neko, Carl, and Dan have each released at least one near-classic non-Porno solo record, Fancey’s records have been ignored. And, I think I know why.

Fancey takes his inspiration from the stack of dusty records in most other folks’ milk crates. Indeed, this record, cheekily titled Schmancey, reeks of hero worship, homage, and wistful nostalgia. It is a studio album the way Steely Dan used to make studio albums—slick, clean, every note in its right place. It is filled with melodies and harmonies straight out of the Steve Miller Band handbook. It seems to be, over and over again, trying to recreate the magic of Big Star’s early output. In short, it plays like the soundtrack to a movie set in Fancey’s youth. Remember “Jackie Blue”, that big 1975 hit by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils? So does he.

At its best, Schmancey is truly an impressive piece of work. It is so well designed, and so unswerving in its presentation, that it speaks to the profoundly dedicated artistry of its author, and his deep respect for his musical progenitors. Schmancey is more awash in handsome melody, in luxuriant orchestration, and in plain old pillowy bliss than any new record I’ve heard in months. But (and this either matters to you or it doesn’t), there are simply no new ideas here. This is an exercise in assimilation and sincere execution—on which score it is undoubtedly a success—that, ultimately, won’t bring about any kind of new movement in pop music. Indeed, it likely won’t do much of anything except remind you of the records of your youth. Or, I suppose, your big sister’s youth. Sigh.

Heck, it might even make you take a trip to the basement for those old milk crates?

But the question here revolves around relevance. When Wilco released Summerteeth back in 1999, they took a lot of heat for their album-length flirtation with early ‘70s pop, especially sandbox-era Beach Boys material. Their record was confounding, but gorgeously so, and has since stood up as a curiosity in their catalog for the bold contrast between the lush beauty of the production and the despairing, often nightmarish imagery of its lyrics. This was, ten years ago, a ‘70s pop music redux. And it has since spawned considerable acolytes, musical innovations, and a kind of rediscovery of post-‘60s studio pop. Caribou, the Besnard Lakes, Blitzen Trapper, and Panda Bear, to take a few au courante examples, all owe a little something to Jeff Tweedy’s worship of Holland and Surf’s Up.

Fancey’s Schmancey can be described in many of the same terms (minus, perhaps, the Beach Boys references). However, whereas those bands have taken the past and re-imagined its offerings, emphasizing an integration of Nixon-era melody with Bush II-era execution, Fancey’s approach is to refuse virtually every musical shift since about 1976. It is, in this way, bizarrely idiosyncratic. No one does this stuff anymore, but Fancey is determined to bring it back, to lead the charge, even if he’s the only one in the charge.

And, speaking of idiosyncrasy, Fancey’s Schmancey is driven by lyrics so weird, so personal, and so decidedly out of phase with the pleasant, dreamy joyfulness of the music that if you focus upon them, the effect can be arresting. Not good, by the way, just arresting. Fancey’s lyrics are anything but minimalist, and are often just plain awkward. There are songs about dropping acid with his “autumn friends”, fantasies about flying up to Heaven, the deleterious effects of Karma, and even, um, witches. (“Witches night/ Black angel flight/ Something don’t feel right.” Uh huh.)

And then there’s “Fader”, a pseudo-singalong love song boasting what is likely the most awkward refrain I’ve ever heard. Just imagine: a hallucinatory, psychedelic wash of sugary pop, the kind of stuff that keeps your high on track when the mushrooms start to kick, when suddenly, unaccountably, comes this little bit of mindfuck. “Hitler, started World War Two/ Stalin joined in the slaughter more than we knew/ Truman, did what he had to do.”

Now, everybody!

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