Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Jan. 19, 2009
Apologies for sounding like a broken record or an oversimplified lecture on aesthetics but there seem to be at least two distinct castes within the contemporary world of independent music, two different sides to the multi-faceted underground. There are the bands, outfits and musicians whose work is heralded by smaller labels because their sensibilities or their sound exist, sometimes proudly, outside or beyond “mainstream” interests. And there are those who more closely mirror and sometimes imitate those “mainstream” interests and whose work – good, bad, indifferent – sounds like it is (merely?) waiting to be picked up or championed beyond that underground. Fair enough? Like A Fox, the Philadelphia-based band that just released its sophomore outing, is, to put it kindly, among the latter.
There isn’t anything terribly bad about Where’s My Golden Arm?, an 11-song offering released by Transit of Venus in partnership with Empyrean Records. But there isn’t much terribly great about it, either. The disc is a collection of mostly agreeable, mostly humming-friendly pop-rock songs that were cut and studio-polished largely to be disseminated over radio airwaves. Its only big concept seems to be accessibility. There’s rarely a note or a bridge out of place, and the performers and engineers have thrown together a serious collection of studio production tricks to flesh out the package, presumably under the guise of atmosphere. (The band’s press material touts the group as psychedelic rock/pop, one would imagine because of these sonic flourishes. I don’t think I quite buy it.) Many eras boast musicians who yearn to be John Lennon. Jay Laughlin, the multi-instrumentalist at the heart of Like A Fox, might be better said to emulate Peter Frampton; this has stadium ambitions.
If that’s your bag, well, then, this is your record. You’ll get plenty of big-chorus stadium rock (“On The Way,” “Heard The Shot”), light-hearted pop that impersonates the more innocent strains of 60s surf-pop (“Night Person”) and numbers that bounce between shuffling acoustics and barn-burning guitar solos (“A Feeling That Launched A Thousand Wars”) “Time Stands Still,” despite the poppy verses, features full-throttle guitar figures that pay homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd; “Heard The Shot” and “Been Sitting There,” with their palm-muted guitars, owe debts to The Cars.
One of the worst things you could probably say about the record, though, is that it’s a paint-by-numbers affair. No matter how evocative that out-of-place pseudo-instrumental passage in “Gold” is, with its expanding guitars, synths and ooh-la-la-la-la vocals, you just know these guys are going to go in for the kill again and again with a certain formula on the next song. (And the next.) There seems to be a genuine artistic appetite on display here. It’s just that it mostly hungers for acceptance. The band, which mostly consists of Laughlin, displays no sense of adventure, no longing to stray from the all-too-familiar path of the pop-rock refrain. Laughlin hits the right notes and then some, sings with a semi-affected boyish delivery, and serves up the chorus with all of the accent marks cemented in place. But, isn’t there more to independent music than this?
The record ends not with a verse-chorus-verse mold but with the dreamy and unexpected “Just A Light Hit,” which feels like an odd marriage between Pink Floyd and Faith No More. It’s a really interesting choice, a great song and one of the few moments to diverge from formula, but it’s not enough to save the record. This is a pop-rock record with choruses to peddle and radio playlists to fill. Mainstream, here they come.