Sunday, July 25, 2010

Album Review: "Reservoir" by Fanfarlo

When David Bowie gives you his stamp of approval well before your first album drops, you’re likely to draw a horde of willing listeners. And close on their heels will be a fair share of skeptics. On their debut album, Reservoir, the blunder made by London-based band Fanfarlo isn’t that they fall short of their lofty expectations, but that they sound like they were afraid all along that they’d fall short of them. Their strategy was to play it safe, and the result is an album that’s at times enchanting, but ultimately frustrating.

Lead singer Simon Balthazar pens stories about trying in vain to sidestep a world that’s collapsing in on itself. There’s nowhere to go but down—a sturdy message across Reservoir’s eleven tracks, though Balthazar is sometimes unable to spin interesting metaphors out of the simple fact that things are just plain falling everywhere he looks. Drowning men drag him down while the walls come down. Somewhere, bombshells are coming. The album title not only suggests that manmade lakes are being built for the purpose of stemming the wide urban decay, but that water is also responsible for the very same destruction. In “Ghosts,” Balthazar describes a dam breaking at a cursed reservoir: “It caused a drought / It caused a flood / It came to change us all for good.” Balthazar isn’t clear how exactly it changed us, but this much is certain: the flood is seismic.

The instrumentation on Reservoir is generally strong, if understated, with Balthazar’s bandmates using an array of instruments—including strings, glockenspiel, trumpets, and banjo—to create a pleasant folk sensibility. Fanfarlo’s most courageous gestures happen when the instrumentation is allowed to shine, like on the stately call-to-arms chorus in “The Walls Are Coming Down” and the brass-led, spellbinding beat in “Ghosts.” But there’s an odd feeling throughout the album that this is meant to be Balthazar’s one-man struggle, his destiny to take Captain Ahab’s path to certain destruction. In this respect, Fanfarlo differs from the Arcade Fire, to whom they’ve been compared. While the Arcade Fire does share with Fanfarlo a diverse instrumentation and a big worldview, what sets the Montreal-based band apart is that we never doubt that their members share equally in the struggle, loss, and redemption. The vocals and instrumentation on Reservoir, however, too often sound like independent parts.

If Balthazar is determined to go at this alone, then his vocal execution better match the magnitude of the apocalyptic events he depicts. Instead, he sounds tired, like he’s just returned home from moonlighting as an opera singer. Balthazar’s voice still holds appeal, especially on tracks like “Drowning Men” when he matches the urgency of the instrumentation at the start before linking arm-in-arm with his bandmates for a gentle close. But these moments are rare on the album’s eleven tracks. When first single “The Walls are Coming Down” came out in September 2009, bloggers were quick to compare Balthazar’s voice to that of Alec Ounsworth, the frontman for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Another apt comparison is Zach Condon’s operatic tenor. But Balthazar’s voice lacks the whine that makes Ounsworth’s oddly appealing, and Condon’s expansive, go-for-broke attitude that befits his worldly influences. Balthazar too often sounds like he’s worried that his voice will crack if he stretches it too far. On the track with the Sufjan Stevens-inspired title, “Harold T. Wilkins, Or How to Wait for a Very Long Time,” Balthazar seems to pull back precisely when he’s supposed to scream (in the closing refrain of “just sail this thing straight!”). Here, Fanfarlo aims for the heights attained by the Arcade Fire on “No Cars Go.” The difference is, the Arcade Fire’s repeated screams of “hey!” sound like they have the power to topple buildings. I waited and waited for the Balthazar to just wail, and to give me that much-needed emotional kick that his band so obviously wants to produce. But it never came. Balthazar is a strong enough lyricist that I can imagine myself standing at the base of the dam just before it breaks. But what’s the point if the water only hits you like a lawn sprinkler?

There are some fine moments on Reservoir, but they don’t stretch on long enough for the album to matter to you when it should, like when, to take a cue from the title of the last track, you find yourself saying good morning to midnight all alone. There’s merit in having musical restraint, but on Reservoir, building meticulously without the proper moments of release keeps the collection of pleasant moments from ever developing into a compelling whole. That sort of achievement means that Balthazar will have to rely on—or trust?—his bandmates even more. Better to not go it alone with events this tragic. The potential for something great is certainly there, so I’ll give Fanfarlo the benefit of the doubt and choose the desirable interpretation of the album title (a rich source of a compound essential for survival) over the less desirable one (a large artificial construct). That source hints at what Fanfarlo could become. Balthazar should draw more from it next time.

[3 out of 5 stars]


At 3:52 PM, Blogger Mugshot said...

Great review!


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