high octane

Reviewing this album is such a conundrum for me. You see, I loved The Format dearly. Their music carried me through college and all of the experiences, friendships, and relationships contained therein. I saw them live many times, and mourned their passing four years ago. fun. is a close sibling, and as such, my love carries over. It’s hard to keep these guys from winning you over. Regardless of your musical preferences, it seems so easy to let go of every pretension and enjoy this band, because their music lives up so well to its namesake. Even when it isn’t very good.

Some Nights is among the finest collections of songs Nate Ruess has ever written. His classic lyricism, hooks, and thematic elements are all present. Guitarist and Steel Train vocalist Jack Antonoff, along with ex-Anathallo multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost, fill out the trio, and they are two of the most fitting and capable musicians for a project such as this. fun. has brought all of the necessary ingredients to make a fantastic pop-rock record, one that could have easily been better than their debut, Aim and Ignite. Unfortunately, the final product is cheesy, overproduced, and at some points, unlistenable. What happened?

The blame for this album’s shortcomings lies with chosen producer Jeff Bhasker, who prior to working with fun., produced for the likes of Kanye West, Adam Lambert, Beyoncé, and Drake. fun. is the exact opposite of the acts that Bhasker has previously produced for: a band fully capable of making music–good, highly accessible pop music–with no help.

While listening to this album (which I have many times already), the question I can’t stop asking is “why?” With the talent contained among the three of them, why would this band allow these production choices? Dear God, are those synth horns? You have a proficient horn player in your band! Why? Why choose a producer who makes your record sound like no one in the band can play an instrument, when the exact opposite is true? That’s not to say you won’t hear Jack and Andrew on the album, but Bhasker’s contributions are far more evident, to the point where they might as well put him at the forefront of the band. That bothers me; when I know how capable a band is, I want to hear it on the record. I don’t want a producer to cover it up.

Neither The Format’s output nor Aim and Ignite were inaccessible in any way. Steve McDonald, producer on both Dog Problems and Aim and Ignite, helped create a sound that sat perfectly on the fence between gleeful pop and substantive rock. Not only was Nate’s prowess as a writer of catchy pop songs evident, but contributions from other band members could be heard loud and clear. Given the right marketing, this band could’ve made it just as big as they aim for without sacrificing themselves to the most base sound imaginable.

Truly, the songwriting is not the problem here. At their core, the songs are great. The album starts strong with the anthemic, Queen-esque intro and title track, both of which are almost good enough–regardless of overproduction–to forgive the rest of the album. “We Are Young,” the band’s first real breakout single, is enjoyable, despite some terrible clichés (“set the world on fire,” “brighter than the sun”) and repetitive chorus. The ballad “Carry On” is catchy and solid; probably the closest thing to Aim and Ignite you’ll find on this album. All three band members shine on this track, which is sadly a rare occurrence on this album. Melodically, “Carry On” reminds me a lot of the unreleased Format song “Swans,” which proves my belief that if The Format were still making music in 2012, they’d be writing very similar tunes.

“It Gets Better,” ironically, is where it gets worse. This song is the worst victim of production on this album; an assault on the ears from the first few seconds of the track. In the live setting, it’s a callback to Interventions + Lullabies‘ catchy power-pop. On Some Nights, it sounds like Cobra Starship. “It Gets Better” is the epitome of the problem with this album. Again, the song is fine; it’s solely the production choices that make it such a cacophonous clusterfuck.

“All Alone” and “All Alright” have the same problem to a lesser extent. Like almost every track on this album, they would be far more tolerable (and actually very good) if you could just hear the band playing their instruments. “All Alright” in particular would be much better if Andrew’s piano part was placed far above everything else in the jumbled mix. “One Foot” is just as loud and grating as “It Gets Better,” but worse, with its blaring, looping synth horns that sound like something Bhasker dug up from a rejected Ludacris beat.

“Why Am I The One” is the most straightforward pop-rock song, and it’s probably one of the better songs from this record. The contributions from the actual band members are far more evident in this song than most other places on the album. The Elton John influence is obvious here, particularly in the chorus. Finally, closer “Stars” demonstrates what I think the band had in mind when they hired Bhasker. Like the rest of the album, it’s big, with plenty of synths and vocoder (you’ll notice that I didn’t mention vocoder, aka autotune, anywhere else–I actually don’t have much of a problem with its use for effect), and the only song on which I think the production is fitting. I would have much preferred a less artificial sound, but it fits in some places. Although it doesn’t make up for all the bad choices on this album, it helps me see what they were going for.

I’d be more forgiving if Bhasker had only been chosen to work on one or two tracks, maybe “Stars” and/or “We Are Young,” but an album filled with this much butchering is tragic. I can hear the sound they were going for; it’s certainly different from past Ruess-lead projects, but it could have been so much more interesting. In my wildest dreams, Kevin Barnes (of Montreal) would have produced this album. I can envision some of the soundscapes that would’ve resulted in such a collaboration, and they would have been very fitting for this direction. Barnes has worked with collaborator Janelle Monáe, so he’s not too many degrees away from this band.

There’s an old story Nate used to tell about his dislike for label executives and bureaucracy (which is also recounted in “Dear Boy.”) When he brought the first Dog Problems demos to The Format’s label at the time, an executive complained that they weren’t “high octane.” Shortly afterwards, they were dropped from then-label Atlantic.

If there ever was such a Nate Ruess record, it’s this one. Somewhere, that label executive is listening to Some Nights and shouting, “YES! YES! NATE, THIS IS HIGH OCTANE!”

If I gave a numerical score to this album, which I won’t, it would be between 3 and 7. If I just listen for shits and giggles, I can enjoy it on the 7-level, but when I take it a little more seriously, I dislike it quite a bit. For that reason, I doubt I’m the target market here. This is for pop radio. Car speakers. Although die hard fans like myself will listen from time to time anyway. I used to recommend this band to people. I still will, but definitely with a caveat if they choose to start here. I doubt I’ll need to, anyway–it certainly seems that the sound they’ve chosen is working out well for their own popularity. Good for them.

it [could’ve been] better

fun.‘s second album Some Nights will be released on Fueled By Ramen on February 21st. Until then, you can head over to iTunes and hear previews of each horribly butchered and overproduced song. Alright, I’ll retain my final judgement of the album for when I hear it in full, but I’ve already begun writing the negative review in my head. My skepticism about this record has always had more to do with production choices than a lack of confidence in the songs, and hearing the live versions proves this point. Until now, I’ve held off on listening to the new songs, as I prefer having a fresh listen of an album. But I’ve heard enough to solidify the disappointment, so I wanted to know what the songs sounded like minus the terrible production. Perhaps more frustratingly, they sound great, many of them right up there with the best fun./Format output. It’s just so tragic when production kills an album.

I’ve compiled live performances of the first nine songs off Some Nights–remaining tracks “Stars” and “Out on the Town” do not appear to have been performed live yet. If you’re a glutton for disappointment, listen to these before you listen to the final product.

1. Some Nights (Intro)

2. Some Nights

3. We Are Young

4. Carry On

5. It Gets Better

6. Why Am I The One

7. All Alone

8. All Alright

9. One Foot

This should also serve as a testament to how great this band is live. I’d very much recommend seeing them play instead of bothering with the new album.