Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Switchfoot Switches Feet: Fading West, album review

Artist/Band: Switchfoot (w. Jon Foreman frontman)
Album: Fading West
Genre: techno, singing pirate, effervescent power-pop , indie rock – or something like that.
Release: Jan 14, 2014

Authors Note:  There is small part of me that does not want to be associated with Switchfoot anything.  As a man of advancing age, who has yet to surf and who thinks Jon Denver represents the pinnacle of pop music,  I am afraid I may loose curmudgeonly credibility if I sometimes listen to music that might be played on the radio.  This is not my music.  Except.   Well, Saturdays when I need music to overpower the vacuum or shake the cobwebs from the corners.  (Nothin like being found with  air guitar in one hand, dust rag in the other!)

I am going with the idea that you are already familiar with Switchfoot, but if not, at least half of this review is wasted:) The immediate response of both this ear, and the review community at large: Switchfoot has switched feet. On a sound level, This is quite unlike anything they have done of recent or maybe ever. (Thematically, I hear continuity.)  As for me. I love it. But then. I love liquorish. And curry. And the band's first album, the Legend of Chin.

In speaking of the sound, other reviewers have referenced Brian Eno, Cold Play, even Katy Perry. As for me, I hear Bollywood or the Lumineers on electric steroids. (or something like that.)

However you compare, Switchfoot has powered down, or across....from hard edged guitar, to an eclectic-electric smorgasbord.  Hear a sample here:

And what do we get.   A semi-loud color-pop joy ride.

It goes without saying we all listen to music for various reasons, and that at of those reasons, the most persistent and powerful – is pleasure. Short cut: When I listen to this album I experience genuine pleasure.  Part of that pleasure is to be found in newness, connected to oldness. I find joy in hearing sounds or combinations of sounds that are new to my ear. I also enjoy following the creative trajectory of people with whom I have made friends (in a familiarity sense). But most of all, I find that this particular album pushes us into a new emotive landscape. For nearly two decades Switchfoot has fed us pretty heavy on the broken world. They have asked the question… Is this all there is…Would you make this your home? Do you want something more? But here, tucked in and gushing through the tracks, we are treated to the prospect of joy. – Genuine, radiant, transforming joy.

Do you ever read a review of an album or a film, then wonder if you and that reviewer live in the same universe? Just after purchasing “Fading West” and finding my ear dazzled by SwichFoot’s new volley of sounds, I rushed to read what other people were saying about the new product. I was surprised to see the number of people who gave this a mediocre rating. REally?!!!!   It would appear that not everyone takes to Swithfoot switching feet.

Fading West is a bombshell. Switchfoot's ninth studio album doesn't sound much like Switchfoot. In places its over-produced with far too many bells and whistles employed in the studio. Are Switchfoot still a rock band? Fading West suggests they've moved quickly but firmly into post-rock territory. Gone are the classic guitar riffs that made songs like Meant To Live and Dark Horses so great. … All in all, it's hard to have anything but mixed feelings about Fading West. Perhaps it was inevitable that after such a long run of phenomenal albums, Switchfoot would release a project which, as the title suggests, makes them fade just a little. It'll be a long wait, but at least we can take heart that Switchfoot still have the potential to power their way back to the top.

Dear Mr. Hailes I beg to differ. Mightily.  And this from an ear, that listens to very little power pop anything.

Perhaps it is my very lack of familiarly with modern pop rock that allows me to like this so much. Sure I hear heavy production. And in most every-other  world, I favor stripped-down, wood and bone  production. Give me sitars and rains sticks, banjos and bongos, yukes and Steinways… just keep away from that electricity… UNLess… You do it in such a way that something vitally human is left in place and shimmers through all that gloss.

So what is one of those vitally human things that shines through?

Answer: the very production.

As is, this IS a producer’s album. It is hard to imagine this product presented live (without a great deal prerecorded.) But then, is not the studio a place for artistry? To enjoy this album you just have to embrace the idea that layering, distortion, grand and altered sound-scapes are part of what it means to be creative. There is untold creative flourish in Fading West.   This is a work of sonic imagination.  


Earlier I mentioned Bollywood, and the Lumieers. That might be quite a stretch. What I do mean to reference is the faddish new-music tendency for people to sing in big happy groups… like pirates in a pub. Fading West embraces that sound, but dishes it in a techo-pop climate. And there that is that use of monochromatic electrified barbershop quartet (or something like that) in the song…Slipping Away…To my ear, highly original.

As it is, if Fading West were Only a novel sound-scape, I would enjoy it twice then put it away. What makes this album work for me is the experimental fun AND the element of “abandon.” Call it cosmic freedom.

Most folks know that Switchfoot is a Rock Band with a Christian ethos. While the band's first three albums were released on a known Christian label, SF never has had the feel of a Sunday-school band. They function well in some in between place – often at the level of parable. Christian themes (if they are recognized at all) often function subconsciously.

Take these lyrics from the recent album:

I believe you're the fire that could burn me clean
I believe you're the fire that could burn me clean
I believe you're the fire that could burn me clean
I believe you're the fire that could burn me clean

And let my soul fly
And let my soul fly

Pavement beneath my feet
I watch the white lines fly
I want a fire that could burn me clean
I want a fire that could burn me clean
And let it go



I can feel it building up inside
Images that play inside my mind
Dreams that I’ve been dreaming all my life
The colors that live outside of the lines

But dreams aren’t all I hide beneath this skin
The chord is cut, the fear, and doubts begin
My hope is anchored on the other side
With the colors that live outside of the lines …

And my heart is yours
And what a broken place it’s in
But you’re running far
And I want to feel the wind at my back again


When I survey Fading West, I see only two, maybe three songs, that might readily be seen as the product of a Christian mind, even at the implicit level. But what I do “feel” at a  far deeper level, is something I would call abandon….abandon to the very freedom God who is author of liberty.

Fading West was crafted first and foremost as a soundtrack for a surfing movie. Really. And what are surfers about if not the freedom from conventions, land…. and time. (Not all time or rules of course, cause even for a surfer that kind of freedom is suicide.) But the freedom of surf and air and letting your body feel the joy of big open sunlit, wave colored world..   There is risk.  Even fright,  but then... the openness.

When I hear Fading West I hear the very dynamics of freedom. Creative freedom; Physiological freedom... freedom to do, explore, express, pursue, engage…Freedom to call out to God and feel heard (even in the place of pain or confusion)…. Freedom to come home....   Indeed.  swimming, living and breathing in the very Freedom that finds its and power and form inside of deeper Law.

None of what I just wrote may have been intended but that’s what I get.

Ps. #1  Full Circle.   Earlier I referenced "The Legend of Chin" the bands first commercial product released way back in 1997.   No one would say that this product sounds anything like that product, but in some ways I see Fading West, and the Legend of Chin as cousin albums.   Legend of Chin, seemed in someways a musical novelty.   It was taunt, nervy, given at times to the spirit of jazz or ska, But mostly it let the band be screaming goofy and fun.  How could you not like a song entitled: It could have Ben Hur.     It has the freedom of play written all over it.    While this album, as a studio product is certainly more "thought out" - it really does come with play.  And community.

Ps #2:   Links of Interest.

Interview about the Documentary Fading West, Lehigh Valley Music.

Making Sense of the Lyrics and the Process:  Land of the Broken Hearts (Switchfoot blog?)

Direct from the Band... The final Word, on how what and why.

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