Leaving behind the straightforward postpunk club music of their first album, NYC’s the Fever head into murkier corners on their sophomore opus, In the City of Sleep. From the carnival-esque cover art to the maudlin song titles, it’s clear that the band is letting ambition and a rigid aesthetic master their piano driven circus act. Composed of 16 tracks that range from achy Waitsian waltzes to Nick Drake-style rave-ups, this is an invigorating album in its desire to be big and ornate, even if it stumbles a little under all the weight.
In the City of Sleep opens with “Curtains”, an opulent and creaky instrumental prelude that underlines the notion that this is a record of lofty aspirations, not just a single-parade like their debut, The Red Bedroom. Musically, the Fever is still very much at home within the fashions of the last half-decade of modern rock, but the approach they take is more in line with the classic rock concept albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s. With no sense of irony and no sign of discretion, the Fever crash through songs as varied as a raving getaway spoken word piece (“Eyes on the Road”) and a delicate, pulsing ballad (“Circus Girl”). But despite the shifts in tempo or design, the band sticks to its grand conceit: making this a highly cohesive — verging on lumbering — collection.
It’s darkly shaded bedlam from start to finish. For the most part, though, it still kicks with a fetching sense of fun. “Redhead”, “Mr. Baby”, and “Hotel Fantom”, for instance, are throttle down car music in the spirit of the Raveonettes. The blithe keys of J. Ruggiero do much to make sure that things don’t slip completely into gloom, while Keith Stapleton’s guitar work is immediate and distinctive without being showy. As far as Achilles Tzoulafis’s drumming goes, it verges on competence and is pushed over the edge toward excellence thanks to the spot on production of Steve Revitte (Liars, Black Dice). By and large, In the City of Sleep cuts razor sharp, yet it’s abrasive enough to sustain the heavy load of the album’s fantastic schematic. The one thing the production can’t resuscitate, though, is front man Geremy Jasper’s voice. Despite various vocal effects, Jasper is not a great singer, and his strained snarling bogs things down at times.
Despite the middling vocals, the major failure of this album is its lacking sense of humor. The Fever’s press releases purport the band was influenced by Federico Fellini’s films, but it seems they’ve eschewed the farcical aspects that make the Italian master’s movies so memorable. In the City of Sleep is filled with grim, spectral imagery galore, but the theatrical gore is delivered with a solemnity that inevitably breeds bored indifference. The only silver lining, really, is the music itself, which is an eccentric romp through the back alleys of the blues tradition, as inherited from the likes of Waits and Cave. Updated gutter rock with the accoutrements of the new millennium’s hyperactive punk revisionism, the Fever do well to stake a claim on exceptionality in the crowded contemporary rock scene with their second album. And ultimately it’s refreshing to see a band attempting to make an entertaining statement album, rather than stripping down and giving in to the “it’s all been done before” aesthetic.