Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: Rooms Filled with Light by Fanfarlo

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Good albums are often slow to reveal their treasures. That’s the case with this, the second full-length release from Fanfarlo, the London-based indie pop band founded by Swede Simon Balthazar. On first listen, I thought “It’s a bit slow.” The second attempt produced “It’s okay.” By the third, I was up to “This is pretty good” and by the fourth, I started to think it’s great. Since they set a high yardstick with Reservoir, their 2009 debut (which made my favorite albums of oughties list), this is a good sign.

What makes Fanfarlo’s sound so unique is the wide range of instruments – violins  glockenspiel, mandolin, acoustic guitar, saxophone, piano, organ, even the musical saw! – and the care taken with the arrangements. This is not “throw everything but the kitchen sink at it” baroque pop, but carefully crafted music where the instrumental choices serve the song, rather than the other way around. Album opener “Replicate” is a great demonstration: it starts with a hammered, dramatic string part that’s the perfect accompaniment to the delicate vocals; an organ bit flutters and tweets over top, and then the strings return to full bowing for the chorus. On “Flood,” the strings add a different flavor, both in plucked accompaniment and in a taut middle section that combines rapid hammering with a build up of bent notes.

“Lenslife” is a song that surprised me. Initially a rather quiet tune with piano and glockenspiel providing color to a chirping bass, it didn’t really grab me, but then the chorus takes it to another level. And now when I listen to the first part of the song, it totally works. “Shiny Things” has a similar feeling, a bit of a slow start (the opening chords sound a lot like “Goshen” from Beirut’s excellent The Rip Tide) but a lovely chorus. The horns play their most prominent role on “Tunguska” (complete with that musical saw), the most soulful song on the album, mostly due to the background vocals.

Throughout, there’s great songwriting with hook-laden and melodic cuts such as “Tightrope” (with piano, organ, electric guitar and bowed upright bass all coming together to create a wonderful sound), “Bones” or “Deconstruction” with its upbeat bass line and organ, chiming guitars and sweet harmonies.

A thoughtful, inventive and catchy album, one I highly expect will end up on my best of list at year-end.

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