The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 6, 2012

Jeremiah Tucker: A few tracks shine on mediocre Fun album

By Jeremiah Tucker
Globe Columnist


Fun: “Some Nights”    

Rating: C

If you have working ears, you’ve likely heard “We Are Young,” the huge -- both in sales and pomp -- breakthrough single of the New York City indie-pop band: “To-niiiiiiiight! We are young. So lets set the world on fi-RE!”

To put things in perspective, Fun is the first rock band to top the Hot 100 with its first charting single since Nickleback in 2001, and “We Are Young” is the first rock song, period, to top the charts since Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” in 2008. That said, I doubt you’re going to read any “rawk is back!” articles in Rolling Stone pegged to Fun.

Fun’s songs are buffed to a high shine, and “We Are Young” deploys all the tricks of a hit single: multiple hooks, a plaintive bridge, a massive chorus and a guest R&B singer. It’s a master class in writing for radio and a devastating earworm.

Most of the band’s sophomore album isn’t as successful, and not every radio trick the band adopts works -- half-hearted rapping? children choirs? Autotune? -- but the go-for-broke spirit is nonetheless endearing.

My favorite track on the album -- and one of my favorite songs of 2012 thus far -- is perhaps the band’s most unfashionable. “Why Am I the One” is unashamed mid-’70s Electric Light Orchestra-style lite rock with multiple moving parts, ramping up to a chorus that Nate Ruess nails with a refreshing lack of irony.

It’s admirable the band possesses absolutely no fear of being deemed uncool by contemporaries who might regard naked commercial ambition with suspicion. (Not that a band named Fun likely ever harbored any desire of being crowned the Strokes of the new decade.) But the album’s failing as an album is that every track aims so squarely for the Top 40 that it sets the criteria by which it will be judged -- is this a hit or not? -- and forsakes any kind of natural flow.

And as a collection of singles, like most big pop releases it’s hit and miss.

Islands: “A Sleep & A Forgetting”     

Rating: A-

I love a good breakup album, the kind that wades into warm pools of self-pity and pretty melancholy. “A Sleep & A Forgetting” is such a record, as singer-songwriter Nick Thorburn grapples with his recent divorce in straight-forward lyrics and his most forthright songwriting, abandoning the quirky pop and genre experiments that defined earlier albums by Islands and his other bands, including The Unicorns.

Most of the songs here are indebted to the ‘60s -- they are intimate singer-songwriter songs with an emphasis on melody. It’s most modern analogue might be Elliott Smith, who also trafficked in bummed-out beauty, and like Smith’s music, it’s the lyrical directness here that makes the album stick.

My favorite song is the finely wrought piano ballad “This Is Not a Song” which opens with the verse: “If Penny roams away, I will have lost everything. In many subtle ways, I already don’t have anything, I hate to watch you go, oh. Nick, if you ever learn, it never shows.”

Carrie Brownstein, the musician and actor from “Portlandia,” pointed out on NPR recently how Nick addresses himself in the third person in the song. Throughout the album it’s clear he’s trying to tear down the distance between himself and the music he’s creating. It works.

The Shins: “Point of Morrow”     

Rating: B

It’s weird, given how much I’ve listened to this album in recent weeks, how little I have to say about it.

I’ve liked The Shins since their first album in 2001, and since then the band has pretty much shrunk to frontman and songwriter James Mercer. “Point of Morrow” doesn’t sound like the early Shins albums. The songs are more muscular, more present, but there’s a knottiness to the songwriting that’s distinctly Mercer’s.

I find this is a good default record when I can’t think of anything I immediately want to listen to at the moment. I don’t mean that as a dig because the music’s pleasant but also engaging. It’s more present than pretty background music, and Mercer has a real talent for unusual melodies.

Yet when I’ve finished listening to it, I can’t recall connecting with anything. Maybe I’ll keep listening.