Lansing’s The Fencemen have been stomping around Michigan since late 2010. Clocking in at just under 38 minutes, their debut album packs a tight, mean punch. The quartet wrote and recorded Times Are Alright throughout 2011 and into the first part of this year. Although it’s the band’s first album, the individual members are hardly novices, bringing together their years of collective experience performing, recording, and touring with regionally- and nationally-successful acts Small Brown Bike, LaSalle, BiddyBiddyBiddy, and Ettison Clio. I learned of them a few months back when a mutual friend put us in touch, as they were looking to possibly add some horn as the finishing touch to one song. I recorded some tracks at my home studio and sent them off. Having somewhat forgotten about it, I received the finished track (and eventually the whole album) a few weeks later and was floored. And instantly a fan.[1. This is why I’m comfortable writing an objective review: I was quite divorced from the overall process and didn’t really know the band until the record was almost finished. And they in no way asked me to write this.]
This is a rock album, driven by guitars (Mike Reed), bass (Jared Nisch), drums (Dan Jaquint), and vocals (Tyler Blakslee). The band effectively seasons its sonic palette with just enough keys, “horns, tambourines, and foot-stomps” to nicely round out the sound without detracting from the core quartet. Save one song, the auxiliary instruments – handled mostly in-house – adamantly remain in the background. Instruments aside, the music is aggressive, visceral, and catchy. And gritty. You can’t help but tap (stomp!) your feet and shake a tailfeather when listening. It rocks hard throughout and enjoys a fair bit of chaos, but there’s always a melody or hook nearby to grab onto. “Call Me A Crooked Heart” is a wonderful opening volley, carefully setting the tone for the rest of the album. Stomping, guitars, bass, and voice entreat the listener to let loose as the ensemble gently builds through the second verse until exploding into the dark, droning second chorus and outro. There’s no turning back: “Nation & Ghost” then kicks it up a notch or three with Reed’s guitars mounting an all-out assault over the rhythm section’s tribal dance.
Rob Gordon suggests cooling it down a notch for the third track. “Rented Rooms” offers a brief respite with its sampled clarinet introduction, but otherwise it’s right back to rocking. The instrumentation is noticeably augmented here with the prominent use of tenor saxophone (yours truly), wailing above and scurrying about the quartet. It’s “live” implementation is a nice juxtaposition with the earlier sample. After these first three medium-tempo rockers, “New Turks” kicks you into overdrive with an uptempo, optimistic romp, imploring you to “clap [your] hands in victory.” Make sure you’re near a dance floor to do so. “Heart Heart of The City” offers your adrenaline a slight breather, but the contemplative “Violent Domestic” and caffeinated “Soft Spot for the Reckless” get you back to rocking hard.
The final three songs are a climb back towards the light. “Knives,” musically, is perhaps the darkest song on the record. Scratchy timbres and wailing guitars abound. This soundscape abruptly gives way to the anthemic “Get Into the Light,” an arena-rock song if I’ve ever heard one – an epic number with all the fixins: catchy guitar riffs, pounding bass and drums, background vocals, half-time chorus, mellow outro. (You can easily picture the audience singing along with the house lights up.) “Century Blues” closes the album on a joyous note: “This ain’t no concession, this here is a hundred years of light.” Despite the final song’s gradually-building intensity, its optimism and slower tempo offer listeners a first chance to catch their breath – a sigh of satisfaction and accomplishment. After being thrown to the lions, everything’s fine.
To me, the music’s grit is its key ingredient to why it’s so infectious. While minor chords and edgy timbres run rampant like the rats and jackals Blakslee describes, neither the music nor the message are ultimately glum. Supported by an undertow of optimism, the album is a sonic representation of the band’s rustbelt hometown – industrial and downtrodden, but with the resolve to come back swinging harder and stronger than before. Arguably the most effective example of this aesthetic is “Soft Spot for the Reckless.” (And of course it occurs at the Golden Section…) Its dark verses describe “a soft spot for the reckless, a ballad for the damned.” Yet the major-mode choruses and outro speak to resilience: “They don’t move to any piper’s tune…And down on No Luck Avenue, they will play the ‘Crooked Mercy Blues’ but they won’t move.”
But you’ll move to Times Are Alright. Guaranteed.