It’s really challenging not to write a review of Father John Misty’s (ex-drummer of the Fleet-Foxes) debut album Fear Fun as if it was a Dennis Wilson solo record. References to the “Canyon” and “Malibu” certainly evoke his life story. That’s not to say the songs aren’t great. But if he wore his inspirations any more on his sleeves, he would have cufflinks with Charles Manson’s grin on them.
This is a moving-to-Los Angeles record. Not the Los Angeles of Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, of the Sunset Strip and heroin, lots of jack, Cantor’s in the small hours of the morning, then have a stroke after one too many speedballs. Instead, it’s the soft, hazy Los Angeles of canyons, beaches, and smog-painted sunsets, along with copious amounts of pot, and not a small amount of sadness.
J. Tillman has a voice that is warm, assured while still vulnerable. He surrounds that voice with a fairly spare and quiet accompaniment. While there are pianos, acoustic guitars and percussion, none of them assert themselves very much. Despite all the instrumentation he might as well as be singing a cappella somewhere off Topanga Canyon.
But there’s more to the album than just the backdrop of LA for his voice. When they come together with a hint of L.A. noir and kinky lyrics, the album becomes worthy of a close listen. Thankfully, the singer doesn’t sound like he’s having much fun in Hollywood. Not because it’s a “jungle”, but because the high temperatures don’t solve any of life’s problems: except maybe the need to buy a sweater.
“Nancy from Now On,” is a standout track for a couple, disparate reasons. First, the vocal melody is simply dazzling. Then, the lyrics and the accompanying video suggest (well more than suggest) a non-vanilla sexual encounter that’s worthy of a Savage Love podcast. Granted, the imagery can make you queasy (what with throwing together S & M, concentration camps, and gender play together), so making the listener and the viewer uncomfortable is probably the point. At the end, this comes together as a strong track, instantly proving that he is capable of much more than pounding the skins.
“I’m Writing a Novel” has witty lyrics, backed up by jazzy piano with just the right amount of twang. Some parts of the medley make me want to scream “Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be” from “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” The surrealist quality of the lyrics also recalls some of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” or maybe Grant Lee Buffalo. But he’s turning up so much gold here, it doesn’t really matter that he is taking a John Deere combine harvester to sacred musical ground.
For my money, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is the highlight of the album. It has an insistent beat, and some dirty, menacing guitars. Apart from the music, the juxtaposition of erotic imagery (“I laid up for hours in a daze/ Retracing the expanse of your American back”) with the funeral (“Someone’s gotta help me dig”) makes for a breathtaking track.
Things get a little less interesting from here on out (with the notable exception of “Only Son of the Ladiesman” and “This is Sally Hatchet”). “O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me” finds Tillman hitting a little too close to Fleet Foxes’ territory. It drifts along pleasantly enough, but it was probably better left on the cutting room floor.
“Well, You Can Do it Without Me” reaches back to the 70s easy-listening rock—complete with sing-song whistles, funky keyboards, and a groovy hi-hat. It sounds like the bastard child of Jim Croce and the Eagles. I can almost see the cocaine residue on his nose while he sings. He could do better than beat this boring-ass horse one more time.
“Tee Pees 1-12” is Gram Parson’s re-write plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that, and he does a great facsimile. What he has on other genre-writers is a gift for melody and a kinky, droll story. (e.g. “You took me to your warehouse/tied up in the back of your van/ You said ‘whip it out’/ And I started to shout/ ‘I’m in love with the woman again’”).
Just like Dennis Wilson’s solo career, this record should establish Tillman’s identity apart from his previous band. Let’s hope he doesn’t follow Dennis into the Marina, and he keeps turning out very good records like this.
Verdict: Stream It