Monday, September 21, 2009

Album review: fun.’s Aim & Ignite

By Alyse Whitney

Released on August 25th, 2009

Nate Ruess knows how to make a statement. Rather than returning to the music industry after the disbanding of indie rock favorite The Format with a haphazard solo career or newly compiled band, he decided to have some fun.

After the decision was made to put The Format on hiatus, front man Ruess turned to two of his closest friends – lead singer and guitarist Jack Antonoff of Steel Train and former Anathallo piano player, Andrew Dost – and experimented by taking a leap outside of the box. By combining multi-layered harmonies, rhythmic drumbeats, swelling violins, and a gospel choir, the arrangement of fun.’s debut LP, Aim & Ignite practically creates its own genre.

The record opens and closes with an explosion of emotion and soaring harmonies while throwing any semblance of traditional structure and tempo out the window. The unfamiliar sound of an accordion begins the opening track of “Be Calm,” cueing violins and the questioning tone of Ruess as he croons his lyrics. The irony of the lyrics (“I close my eyes, I tell myself to breathe and be calm”) and the ever-changing rhythm becomes apparent as the song quickly becomes anything but calm, picking up in tempo as soon as claps and marching band-esque beats enter the arrangement.

Although this was not released as an initial single for the band, the first transition of sweet ballad to up-tempo show-tune could easily be used as an overture for the album, illustrating just how frantic Nate Ruess can be.

While all three members of fun. contributed to the album, it becomes quite clear that Ruess is the dominant force behind its creation. Despite it being entirely different musically, a listener could easily be confused by the continuous nature of The Format’s 2006 album, Dog Problems, and fun.’s Aim & Ignite. Thankfully for Ruess, this time around, the lyrics are not cynical and breakup-fueled; instead, the album is filled with jumping violin beats and cheeky rhymes (“All the Pretty Girls”) and effortlessly beautiful piano-heavy arrangements (“The Gambler”) composed by Doth and arranger Roger Joseph Manning Jr., the former keyboardist of Jellyfish.

The combination of Manning Jr. and Dog Problems producer Steven McDonald created a strong base for fun. to build off of, layering horns upon Queen-inspired harmonized vocals along with mixed percussion and toe-tapping beats. After an initial listen, the album is a bit overwhelming and unexpected, but after the record spins on repeat a few times around, the effect is almost hypnotizing in its perfection. fun.’s decision to write and record in New York City allowed the band to see Broadway musicals every night, which provided strong influence for the album. In theory, the album (although only 42 minutes in length) could stand on its own as a full-fledged show due to Ruess’s theatrical nature and the stories, individual voices, and characters interwoven to create an absolutely stunning album. This show-tune like quality is strategically placed into each song, but shows its prominence in the uplifting “Barlights” as the gospel choir is cued up in the bridge, chanting the line, “I feel alive, I feel alive, I feel alive.” From that point on and into the chorus, the choir builds as Ruess repeats “see I’m gonna live forever” and they branch into three separate parts and end the song with an eruption of horns.

The album ends as strongly as it began with a song weighing in at 7 minutes and 51 seconds, cleverly titled “Take Your Time (Coming Home)”. Despite every element and instrument combined in a jumbled manner, each instrument is distinctive and has a solo, including Nate Ruess as he ends the song with a half-yelled, half-sung indistinct fade out of notes that leave the listener anxiously awaiting more. Although it only weighs in at ten tracks and just under 43 minutes, fun.’s debut speaks for itself, bringing together the art of show tunes and the indie-pop-rock feel that fans of The Format have been missing for the past three years.

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