As Fast As "Open Letter To The Damned"
Label: Octone Records
Released: May 9th, 2006
Oftentimes when we think of American culture and what the states have given us, we can usually come up with a handful of important aspects that each state has blessed us with. California has given us plenty of entertainment, Texas has provided us with oil and North Dakota has given us...well, North Dakota has given us North Dakota (which is plenty enough). But what, exactly, has Maine done, tucked all the way up in the northeast corner of the United States? I'm sure Maine feels quite left out, like that short kid who tries jumping over all the tall kids' shoulders to see what the huddle is all about. They really only have a big golf tournament there every year, and most likely have good crabcakes, too (although, to be fair, Maryland wins them over).
Fortunately for Maine, it has one thing to be very proud of giving us: As Fast As, an alternative pop/rock band from Portland, who specializes in sounding like they came from the year 1995, all while sounding retro and modern at the same time. It's quite an accomplishment, seeing that the grunge-type sound went out with flannel shirts years and years ago. But somehow, these four gents - vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Spencer Albee, bassist Hache, guitarist Zach Jones and drummer Andrew Hodgkins - pull it off without a hitch, all while sounding completely original while wearing their inspirations on their sleeve.
Their home - major label imprint Octone Records, which houses a band you may have heard of called Maroon 5 - has a solid reputation for signing bands that develop a taste for blending old-school pop flavor with classic rock/r&b, and it's quite a treat to see how much they sound like the bands they say they do on their MySpace page (e.g. "Foo Fighters meet Elvis Costello," which is a pretty damn good comparison). Bringing producer Matt Wallace (who has worked with Sugarcult) on board to polish their sound and beef it up a bit was a solid choice, as he and Albee create a atmosphere that sounds smooth and pretty, but still very natural. It's almost as if a bunch of classic rock bands made love to the grunge era and created this band. They give you a familiar sound all while dishing out a vibe that is different from anything in the pop/rock world today.
The first song, "Blame It On The Drugs," is a song that kicks you in the chest and plays like a Led Zeppelin ditty mashed-up with a Nirvana tune. Albee sings of hurting a girl under the influence, all while trying to remember what he did exactly. "And I swear / she's all right / But last night I fucked it up / And I pray / she's all right / And I blame it on the drugs." Albee's key sense of lyricism is very much akin to Elvis Costello, being self-loathing while mocking the world he feasts upon. It gives the record a life of its own, and makes it interesting to listen to. The album's single, "Florida Sunshine," is a shiny, synthed-up track meant to make you want to dance, yet it's hidden under an attitude of deceit and slick candor that contradicts its musical tone. The band does this a lot on the disc, making you curious about what kind of a world Maine really is up there.
Moving on to the bombastic pop gem, "Special," (produced by studio guru Howard Benson, known for creating hit after hit) it's easily the most hit-worthy song the band delivers, giving regular joes who will do anything to find the girl of their dreams a sense of hope, all by just being honest. "Gretchen My Captain" uses ukulele and whistling along with a harmonious chorus to make it one of the best-sounding tracks on the album. It's the most "technical" song on the record.
The most power-ballad song on the album is "This Time," which uses the blues guitar well as a hair-metal tool, all while demonstrating heavy use of the organ (an instrument that can give a lot of depth to a song, while making it sound old and dark...in a good way). It's a very good song that is powerful in the way it sounds, using some orchestral arrangements during its end. "Wasted Youth" is really just an old blues song with dirtier lyrics, with Albee's great voice and kooky lyrics giving the song a much edgier feel the the record (at least in terms of pop/rock). The title track is the song's high point, using jingle-jangle acoustic guitar with jazzy keyboard, making the song a fun, upbeat number similar to Paul McCartney's early solo work. Again, Albee makes for a wonderful lyricist, talking of women who are difficult to handle, but manipulative at best: "I feel so much regret / for what’s not happened yet / in fact, step back because she’s mine."
"Skin The Kat" could be mistaken for an old James Brown song, judging by Albee's vocal style and decisive use of organ, although the chorus is straight-up blues rock n' roll. It's a rollicking song that really revs your energy up a few notches. "If I Only Knew" is not quite a ballad, but sounds like it could have been one for somebody like Billy Joel or (again) Paul McCartney. It's got the feel of a late-70's pop/rock tune, all while Albee keeps his vocals much like the said artists. He really is a terrific vocalist and changes his tone frequently, making each song sound a bit different, like you're wondering if this is the same singer from before.
The hard-hitting, and epic-sounding, final song ("This Is Real") cements the very fact that As Fast As is good at putting classic rock/blues together with late-70's pop/rock and 90's grunge. It just reeks of muscle and adrenaline, and stomps the place. A bonus song - which is an older song re-recorded - entitled "Something Fierce" is a darker song that sounds a lot like Ray Davies of the Kinks. A nice final tip of the hat from a band surely looking at a bright future in music.
Many of the popular bands today are doing the same thing over and over, trying to outdo one another and make themselves seem important, while not really doing anything. Bands like As Fast As simply come out with some inspiration, and end up making it all sound new. A lot of bands out there want to make the next Radiohead album or make the next Beatles disc, while As Fast As has come out and taken everything you love and wrapped it in their own packaging.
I'm sure Maine is happy enough to not be known for just a golf course now.
Choice Cuts: "Open Letter To The Damned," "If I Only Knew," "Special"
I just have to say that this band wouldn't be anywhere if it wasn't for the Rustic Overtones, which the keyboardist, last time I checked, used to be a member of. But yeah, good live show, good album, nice review.