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Julian Fane: Our New Quarters

Somewhat unsurprising electronic indie-rock which, especially considering his vocal style, comes off sounding like a slightly fuller, broader-paletted version of Thom Yorke's The Eraser.

Julian Fane

Our New Quarters

Label: Planet-Mu
US Release Date: 2007-02-20
UK Release Date: 2007-03-12

There are a few options open to the electronic musician seeking to broaden potential audience and improve chances at mass appeal. Embracing some of the usual accoutrements of pop music is the obvious way: introducing verse/chorus structure, clearer melodic hooks, or vocals. Really it's the vocals that come up again and again. How better to humanize a genre all too often criticized for being overly cold and mechanical than by adding obvious humans? And so we get our Postal Services, our Notwists, our endless Chemical Brothers guest vocal spots.

Julian Fane, seizing potential genre limitations by their horns (hooks?) has been singing over his own compositions for a while, even before switching to his own name as a solo moniker for Special Forces in 2004. As such, the Vancouver musician, already veteran of several bands, solo-projects and the Vancouver Stock Exchange, is well-positioned to drop on the pop side of the electronic music spectrum. This year, however, he seems bent on clinching the deal. This spring saw, nearly simultaneously, two new albums -- two projects, two very different bids to reach new listeners.

Lynx and Ram's System's On and It's Flashing Red saw Fane recruiting singer Carli Vierke and amping his sound up into a noisy, distorted industrial rock that sounds like it would find a ready audience amongst angsty and/or angry teens (probably those who also show a propensity for wearing black). With music running towards harsh guitar loops, heavy descending chord choruses and lyrics exemplified by doomy incantations like "With every step my bones are breaking / dancing while the ship is sinking", there's definitely a formula here, and it's that of a kitschy '90s industrial somewhere between a more aggressive Garbage and KMFDM. I recognize that sounds uninviting, but that's the thing: Fane and Vierke actually seem to be quite good at this sort of thing; tumultuous drums and urgent vocals lend the songs a brisk, visceral charm. While they've certainly dusted off a formula, it's a relatively daring one. No one seems to be making this sort of thing these days.

On the other hand, Fane's new solo album Our New Quarters, when borrowing formulas, tends to stick much closer to expectation. While Lynx and Ram was a sharp departure from Special Forces, Our New Quarters follows more directly from it, simply edging away from more overtly electronic arrangements and towards a more liberal application of vocals, pop song formatting and guitar. The result is somewhat unsurprising electronic indie rock which, especially considering Fane's vocal style, comes off sounding like a slightly fuller, broader-paletted version of Thom Yorke's The Eraser. That comparison seems even stronger upon consideration of their shared bleak, dystopian visions.

Fane's words, pale and melancholic throughout, may not always be immediately decipherable, but the mood seeps through, and it's dire. The opening title track is a bland combination of screeching guitar lead and slow piano ballad, but its glimpse of war-torn future lends it a sense of stark desolation. The rigid drums and disconsolate piano and organ of "New Faces" are serviceable enough, but it's Fane's songwriting (perhaps his strongest of the album) and overarching sense of quiet desperation that make the track worthy of recommendation, from its opening line "If hearts are calmed by faith / then mine is beating itself to death" onwards. Other tracks fit this basic mold, whether via the chilly synth chords and scratchy bass guitar of "The Moon Is Gone" or the angry guitar lashing of "Break and Enter".

Fane came out of the IDM scene (both of his solo albums are on the venerable Planet-Mu), and his expertise in sound manipulation, though sadly underutilized on his latest, still comes through from time to time. Many of the drum loops (both live and manipulated) seem overly simplified, but Fane can still make them dart and clatter effectly when he needs to. On the album's strongest song, "Rattle", they form a harsh industrial slurp, providing stark contrast to oozing synth chords and near-beaten vocals. "Youth Cadet" combines abrasive percussive work with more glassy keyboards and an eerily unintelligible high-pitched vocoder melody. Unfortunately, all too often such intriguing devices are pushed aside in favor of more standard motifs.

Ultimately, as is often the case, the problem isn't with going pop, it's with going pop in a bland, predictable manner. Fane's vocal work can be a solid addition to his songs, but oversimplifying the rest of the formula to push them to the forefront merely weakens the whole. On Our New Quarters, he seems to be keeping his production talents in check, resulting in an album which will seem more immediately familiar to new listeners (especially those not normally interested in electronic music), but sounds all the more generic as a result. His work on Lynx and Ram took a similar reduction-to-genre-conventions approach, but at least chose a less typical genre to emulate. Now it just remains to be seen if either, or both, or neither, of these albums have their desired effect.


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