Label: Sargent House
Fang Island is a band you fall in love with before you even hit “Play.” Hailing from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, the founding members assembled the band in 2005 as an art project. The lead photo on their website is a visual friend request; smiling and waving at the camera, the curly-headed men of Fang Island are all jacketed and sweatered-up for a late February afternoon, spontaneously snagged for a picture as they load up the tour van in a winter-worn back alley. Toothy and sincere, you just know they said “Cheese!” Indeed, this group is composed of five light-hearted, happy dudes who read The Onion (the band’s name originated from a piece about Donald Rumsfeld’s fictional secret bunker) and play live, short sets in kindergarten classrooms (results: 100% of five year olds will pogo to Fang Island). Paralleling Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted prescription – “I think everybody should like everybody” – the band characterizes their sound as “everyone high-fiving everyone.” To say this is a joyful record is to short shrift it; Fang Island is a Ferris wheel of sound, propelling skyward into the dusk as the neon novelties below zap and flicker to life. This thing high-fives on an atomic level.
Fang Island’s self-titled album cues up with the pop and whistle of roman candles, a found-sound kind of opener that fades out as a Nintendo-esque synth melody fades in. It’s fitting that fireworks and video games set the scene; for an album with very few lyrics, the feel of it is weirdly eidetic. It helps to trace the genre – Fang Island is prog rock meets Hello Kitty, an approach that turns cartwheels through super-compact melody-rich themes. Songs like “Daisy” and “Davey Crockett” are meditations on an idea; melodies shift from guitar to voice to keys as the song leapfrogs through miniature movements. The halting rhythm of “Life Coach” mirrors the linguistics of the song: “If you find/ If you, if you find out/ If you can’t decide on the path to take…” trips along until the surefooted resolution “You can see the truth/ You can see the way” culminates in a bass-heavy burst that brings to mind the lowest pitches of a church pipe organ’s foot pedal. “Sideswiper,” a song composed of three distinct motifs, is a dizzying primer in 12/8 time. The syncopation, dropped beats and transposition of time signatures from 12/8 to 4/4 to 6/8 and back again (it is a bitch to count out!) suggest a fluidity if not momentary suspension of structure altogether; even the listener is in constant motion, by turns running alongside the beat and hopping back on board.
Fang Island is largely an instrumental collection of zippy adventures where words don’t function so much as “lyrics” but rather as “messages.” From the upbeat chanting in “Daisy” to the koan-like “All I’ve done in all I will do/ All I know in all I want to” in “Sideswiper” to an affirmation-inspired “They are all within my reach/ They are free” in “Dream of Dreams,” it’s not a stretch to characterize these songs as postmodern, transcendentalist hymns. For the most part, Fang Island lets the guitars do the singing, but when voices are used, they play it to perfection. Building from single voice to chorus to chorale, the degree of emphasis on voice punctuates the vibe with precision. It’s an implementation of vocals where the voice is used as an instrument (lyrics are difficult to make out and, one concludes, probably beside the point) as opposed to a vehicle for storytelling. It’s almost post-verbal. Instrumentally, they are incredibly busy, turbo-powered arrangements, which make the fact that the sound is so unified and organized all the more gobsmacking.
If a measure of artistic success is the ability to execute intention, Fang Island may well be one of 2010’s masterpieces. On a purely recreational level, this is the kind of album where you find yourself cranking up the volume on the car stereo at the beginning of each song (it seems most right to be going somewhere while listening to it) – because really (and legitimately), each song evokes a spontaneous exclamation of “Yes!” or “Yay!” It is a record that makes you happy, it is a record your kids and pets will dig, it is a record you will dance badly to, all Peanuts-style at a picnic. For these phenomena alone, Fang Island is a runaway success. It is, as the band promises, “music for people who like music.” Beyond that, it’s more than just music, it’s art. Whether these guys have exceptional musical talent, enlightened artistic vision or just really potent dharma, the boys of Fang Island have found a way to part the dreary curtain of cynicism and irony. And that, my friends, is pretty fucking special.