Pitchfork: N/A Rolling Stone: N/A Metacritic: 72 Spin: N/A
Released: September 2009
I’m A Pilot
The Walls Are Coming Down
Drowning Men [LISTEN]
If It Is Growing
Harold T. Wilkins, or How to Wait for a Very Long Time
Good Morning Midnight
If a few months ago you hadn’t heard of the up-and-coming, London-based Fanfarlo, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But since then, if you hadn’t at least come across some sort of soundbite, whatever the media, it would be somewhat shocking, but moreso, unfortunate. I can think of few artists/bands whose debut album parallels the musical caliber of Fanfarlo’s Reservoir, and of which I was fortunate enough to experience in the moment of its initial release (Fleet Foxes also comes to mind). The level of production, and more remarkably, degree of musical evolution and self-awareness found on this, their first album, is a charm typically reserved for an artist’s third or fourth album.
“I’m A Pilot” opens the CD, growing from thumping percussion to the sleepy vocals of frontman Simon Balthazar as a heavy backbone of piano and bass come in. Soon with the addition of a glockenspiel, a few cymbal crashes, and some sweeping strings and background vocals support from Cathy Lucas, the only female presence in the band, the track becomes a truly memorable and promising first impression. It serves as an equally appropriate statement on the album and the band themselves: mellow but anthemic; daringly explorative but faithfully melodic.
“Ghosts” continues as a slightly more upbeat (not to be confused with poppy) tune that switches back and forth between restrained and full-on indie rock, at times showcasing their ensemble collaborative abilities in playful trumpet-dominated instrumentation. “Luna” follows even more aggressively, for the first half at least. Pounding drums and bass support a more assertive Balthazar, then back off to bring forward strings, light strumming, trumpet and melodica in a pleasant lull of a finish.
“Comets”, perhaps the loveliest (mostly) quiet track on Reservoir, opens to the light strumming and softly sung vocals of Balthazar, a spacey aura filling the background. After a trumpet solo halfway through (by now the instrument is truly starting to grow on me), the rest of the cast joins in for a more full-bodied close that rallies, “When you look at the horizon there is always something ducking out of sight/ When you’re looking at the treetops and they’re scratching out their patterns in the sky”. “Fire Escape” stays fast-paced, happy, and rich in instrumentation throughout.
A recent radio-adopted tune has been “The Walls Are Coming Down” (video here) which, though previously a lesser noticed song on the album for me, has more recently impressed upon me the degree to which it displays Fanfarlo’s strengths in creating well-structured, thoughtfully-penned songs that both showcase their collective playing as well as the standalone qualities of each of the many instruments that comprise their sound.
“Drowning Men” was an instant favorite for me, drawing off of simple chords and starting right into a fast-paced bass/piano combo that, when coupled with Balthazar’s vocals, could confuse even an avid Arcade Fire fan as one of Butler’s own pieces (I’ve seen it happen firsthand). A combination of deep and high strings draw in more intensity, Balthazar singing the particularly fascinating line: “We can still afford to not make sense at all,” the song then cotinuing to climax as he lets out a handful of passion-filled belts before falling back into a peaceful lull sounding something like Sigur Rós’ “Andvari”. (That’s the little sister of Sigur Rós frontman Jón Þór Birgisson on the Reservoir cover by the way, whose name, Sigurrós, is the namesake of the band).
The vastly more mellow “If It Is Growing”, similar to “Comets”, strips the layers away to reveal a subdued, beautiful undershell of a song, the most acoustic on the album (other than closing track “Good Morning Midnight”, which is nothing but guitar-plucking and well-placed background support). The following track, “Harold T. Wilkins, or How to Wait for a Very Long Time”, has since replaced “Drowning Men” as my favorite, drawing me in with its ability to transform its acoustic underbelly into a hammering, immensely catchy chorus and later an even catchier and hammering finale, the band in instrumental and vocal unison as they belt, “They sail the same strait! They sail the same strait! They sail the same strait, turn the lights on again” (you’d have to be there). Second to last song, “Finish Line”, is a relatively light tune that accomplishes the same kind of happy balance between mellow and upbeat that’s become almost a theme for the album (if that description seems a bit of a cop out, it’s getting harder to talk about these songs in an illustrative or quantifiable way).
Comparisons to the likes of Arcade Fire and Beirut aren’t too far off, replacing some of Win Butler’s angst with Balthazar’s melancholy, and Zach Condon’s gypsy folk with more subdued instrumentation. What’s most remarkable about Reservoir is that it exhibits the refined and manicured songwriting talent that is usually referred to as growth, though in the case of this fledgling band, can only be described as a starting point. What this means in terms of Fanfarlo’s growth in the future, I’m not sure, other than that I’ll be twice as eager and twice as hopeful to find out.