If the Mars Volta is anything like Fair to Midland, it’s in their marriage of rock to other-world influences. The Mars Volta typically find an excuse to go all the way out to the fourth rock from the sun to do it. Fair to Midland travel as far as Tibet, Egypt and Spain (not to mention Earth’s oceans, perhaps?), but the result is no less invitingly alien to a melodic ear. Step up to the table and feast upon song titles like “Dance of the Manatee” and “April Fools and Eggmen,” with spacey/weird lyrics that Cobain might have admired, to boot.
Hailing from Sulphur Springs, TX, Fair to Midland’s ten year life as a band has seen them make the startling transformation from an ultra-alternative/experimental, bordering on “world music” jam band, into viciously melodic hard rockers with a healthy dose of every band member’s guilty pleasures, and a healthy appreciation for continued experimentation. “Fables from a Mayfly,” their major label debut on Serjical Strike, follows up 2004’s self-produced inter.funda.stifle with re-recordings of six tracks from that album, several new songs, and a blast from the past mined from archaic demos (“A Wolf Descends Upon the Spanish Sahara”). Some longtime fans might find the easily radio ready new album a mixed bag, but my suspicions tell me that this will look pretty damn good on many a list of those tired of the likes of Fall Out Boy, The Killers, and Arcade Fire carrying the torch for “rock” music.
Smashing single “Dance of the Manatee,” a mainstay of the band’s catalog since its embryonic beginnings, sees a mostly positive revamp, spit-shining the song’s punishing, Eastern-flavored shred riff, and launching the vocal-propelled chorus to the greatest heights the track has yet seen. The throat-rending bridge section, however, suffers a tad from its inter.funda.stifle counterpart, losing a bit of gutteral power and poignancy in favor of mainstream palatability. The result sounds a bit cheesy when compared side by side with the earlier recording. On the flip side, the following song, “Kyla Cries Cologne,” another inter.funda.stifle remake, sees the most dramatic improvement of any of the older songs– increased production values and overall improved recording clarity really bring the vocal melody to the front to let the track shine. Likewise, “Vice/Versa”’s guitars and melody are strengthened immensely with this version, making for a grand-prize-slap-in-the-face chorus, indeed. The upgrade to “Upgrade^Brigade” is a revamped recording that strays closer to live performances of the track, emphasizing its chaotic, stop-start guitar riffs and among the most impressive Darroh Sudderth vocals in Fair to Midland’s catalog.
“A Seafarer’s Knot” and “Walls of Jericho” see moderate improvement to what were already oustanding tunes. The former’s pinball guitars and rippling keyboard lines crash on the deck with livewire intensity, while the latter sees a sweetened bridge replete with heavenly harmony and fattened bass.
For many “i.f.s” fans, the new pieces on “Fables” initially will seem out of place in the tracklist. But there’s nothing much else to complain about: “April Fools and Eggmen” is a high-flying crunchfest (with a simple, but highly catchy lone guitar riff fitting the verses and choruses together), while “Tall Tales Taste Like Sour Grapes” features a tastefully Victorian-esque violin and piano intro which blossoms into a power anthem showcasing (like most of the songs here) Darroh Sudderth’s stunning self-trained vocals. “The Wife, The Kids…” is one of the weaker songs on the record, but Sudderth’s voice yanks the track into high gear for the skyscraping bridge/outro. Perhaps most disappointing is the closing track “Say When,” which fails to top the semi-acoustic fever dream “Quince” from inter.funda.stifle as a closer in both power and originality.
Fair to Midland fans and Mars Volta fans might get along if everyone can recognize that both bands are swimming against the grain of mainstream mediocrity whilst, well, swimming in it. Both are great at singing, playing guitar, and marrying their influences into something fresh… though perhaps Fair to Midland do so a tad less obviously. Marriage is the name of the game with this band. Whether they’re marrying melody and power, or experimentalism and staying power, these five guys are doing great things for the future of rock ‘n’ roll.