Fat History Month is a Boston-based indie rock duo that incorporates bits of freak-folk, lo-fi, hard rock, DIY prog, and garage blues elements into their music. It is extremely difficult to create so much force and sense of space with guitar and drums as these guys generate and their sophomore full-length album Bad History Month (Sophomore Lounge, 2013) continues to prove their exquisite execution and exemplary songwriting which pulls from late 90′s era Modest Mouse to the more frenetic side of mid-2000′s Devendra Banhart with flourishes of all kind to fill in the nooks and crannies. They play in the pocket with extreme tightness, but those glorious nooks and crannies. That’s where this band lives.
Until the band members’ last names come to light, we’ll get to know them on a first name basis. Sean, on vocals and guitar, is ridiculously deft on the guitar and propels a great indie vocal delivery style that is characterized by nimble melodies, DIY attitude, and touches of hollering here and there. Mark, on drums, has a powerful style which fills the space as both rhythm and melody. His cymbal work is performed at the level of a jazz musician while he employs hefty fills with the snares and toms performed with a lot of class for how heavily rock infused the rhythms are. The guitar settles on straightforward clear tones with a touch of drive and reverb as needed. The finger-picked playing style gives the classic 4/4 beat a facelift when Sean creates the perception of odd time signatures with unexpected interplay between bass notes and relentless treble hammer-ons and pull-offs. Instrumentally this record is sophisticated but youthful, an extremely difficult kind of vibe to write and Fat History Month executes these tracks with precision. The vocals are present in every track and hold roughly half of the listener’s attention with the rest of each track devoted to instrumental prowess. Occasionally the vocals are doubled, giving a low register drawling lead melody overlaid with a countertenor holler to give some oomph. The vocals are tastefully produced to draw the listener in but definitely give a rawness to the album that makes for a very compelling listen. These guys believe that intensity comes from the playing, not just from being able to manipulate levels and pre-amps to instill the feel they’re going for. And on this album, they make believers.
The tracks are dynamic. They are very linear in their structure, and often you get the sense that each guitar lick and vocal falls into the next segment. The songs unfold with a youthful energy that mimics running downhill in the woods, bounding joyously with momentum bumps and jarring fallen branches, laughing all the way. There are extreme juxtapositions of frenetic energy with sudden resolution, only to rapidly build back up to the forceful amplitude they seem to revel in as band mates. But for how overt the energy shifts are in their music, their songs are very nuanced. Consider the rambunctious instrumental break in third track “The Future”, with wailing guitar fuzzed solo over relentless hammering on the crash and floor tom only to immediately break again into this beautiful finger-picked melody way up on the fret board, giving it an angelic innocence that couldn’t possibly be coming from the same guitar that was just being ripped apart. Or perhaps the actually-not-contrived use of strummed harmonics in fourth track “Everyday is Christmas” that sound like the welcoming mat for the coming crescendo. This crescendo resolves into a 3/8 time with wonderful arpeggio sounding finger-picking that gives a refreshing sense of depth after the claustrophobic build. All their songs carry this aggressive form. They write so many melodies and transitions, they have to mash them all into a finite number of songs and consequently there is a feeling of restlessness and verbosity in their sound.
Fat History Month’s “Bald History Month”
The lyricism and vocal delivery has their own complexity, naturally. Images of Isaac Brock, Rivers Cuomo, and Jeff Mangum come to mind in regards to both the vocal inflections and melodic phrasing. The album is full of recurring themes that seem to represent their effervescent persona. The tragedy of the American cowboy; self-mutilation, courage, and triumph over precarious situations. The vocals are easy to rally around: singable, encouraging, but with the perfect touch of realistic pessimism at just the right time. Written by guys that must have been there and done that, in a sense. Perhaps it comes off this way because of their extremely focused songwriting form, but it seems hard to believe that musicians with such ambitious and thoughtful structuring to their songs would write anything other than lyrics that carry a deep meaning to them on a personal level.
If the album needs help, it’s in the low end. This seems natural given the lack of any instrument to lay down bass lines. However, there are moments where the leveling on the percussion could stand to be reworked to increase the bass drum and some of the guitar’s root notes could be brought to the forefront in the engineering to create a bit more of a live feel to the production. Indeed, the songs have plenty of force entirely in the treble range and generally they carry enough weight without a low end. But it does lead one to consider what the band would sound like with a bit more chest thumping richness. They’d need to be damn discerning as to who would fill the position of a third band member. Finding someone to keep up with their excellent chemistry as a duo without changing the excellent spontaneous feel would be essential. It definitely wouldn’t be easy but, until that day comes where someone just fits in, they seem to manage just fine as a duo.
This is exciting music. It’s energetic without being cheesy. The dynamic interplay of the two instruments is dense and ever-listenable. Even each instrument alone would be engaging to listen to in isolation. Fat History Month seem to exude rock sensibilities that manifest with multiple different styles. Their transitions are tactful, and riveting as hell. This is a strong combination and gives the music a sense of freshness despite very familiar elements that most listeners might have thought were lost when the indie scene transitioned away from overdriven rock into more electronic and subtle folk-infused tastes. With Bad History Month, Fat History Month proves they have the chance to continue down their current path and solidify their role as innovative artists creating music that pulls from the past but has inimitable contemporary virtuosic appeal.