The Way We Are

Fleming & John

Universal Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


There are many people who feel that rock music, for the most part, has grown quite stale. Even alternative rock, once hailed as the font of creativity in the early '90s, isn't taking nearly half the chances it once did. Even I, the eternal optimist (stop laughing, already!!!), haven't found that much to smile about in the world of alternative rock, though there have been exceptions.

Fleming & John are a duet who go completely against the grain of rock today. They didn't need a fancy studio to record in; they used their living room. They dared to throw in instruments that some of us have only heard stories about; with the exception of "Good Vibrations", when was the last time you heard someone use a theremin? (How many of you have even heard of the theremin?)

It takes guts to record an album like their latest release, The Way We Are, and throw it to the wolves for mass consumption these days. We should be thankful that Fleming McWilliams and John Mark Painter - with a little help from a few friends, including Ben Folds - had those kind of guts, 'cause this album is amazing.nbtc__dv_250

McWilliams's vocal style is a cross between Lisa Loeb's schoolgirl-ish charms, Alanis Morissette's snarl and Tori Amos's octave range. At first, listening to McWilliams may be a shock to the system, but one quickly grows accustomed to her vocal style. On tracks like "Sssh!", "The Pearl" and "Ugly Girl", her talent shines forth brightly. Even on a silly little ditty about our obsession with the remote control and how our lives revolve around it ("That's All I Know"), McWilliams transcends the subject matter and pours her emotions into the track.

Acting as her musical foil is John Mark Painter, an accomplished musician in his own right (you may remember him from Swamp Ophelia by the Indigo Girls). But more than just a guitar and production wizard, Painter works instruments like vibraphone, balalaika, theremin, oud... good grief, is there anything this guy doesn't know how to play?!? Thing is, he knows all these instruments well, so the end result sounds like an expert on each instrument who had spent their life learning them.

Musically, The Way We Are runs the course from soft ballad ("Don't Let It Fade Away," "Comfortable") to a twisted tango ("Devil's Food") to all-out alternative mayhem ("Ugly Girl", "Sssh!", "Sadder Day"), and all the while, the stylistic shifts sound completely natural.

Fleming & John even go so far as to point out to the listener there's a hidden track - oddly enough, it's called "The Hidden Track". Nice touch. (For the record, it's a "lounge lizard" version of "I'm So Small".)

Musically speaking, The Way We Are has everything going for it. Too bad most consumers and radio stations won't have the balls to touch this one. And that, kids, is a God-Damn Shame; this is the type of album that can make listening to music a religious experience. Two strong songs - "The Pearl" and "Ugly Girl" - have already been pegged as singles; if only radio would have the courage to program this one.

I'm challenging all stations out there - and I know there are a few of you reading these pages, you don't fool me. Pick any of these tracks - "Sssh!", "Ugly Girl," "The Pearl" or "Comfortable" - and put it on medium rotation. Then, watch the phones light up, demanding more.

The Way We Are is an album that isn't afraid to take chances in a cookie-cutter music industry. Fleming & John might never gain superstardom because of this, but at least they've kept their musical integrity - and, to some of us, that's even more important than huge sales. Of course, if they catch on like I hope they do, brisk sales wouldn't hurt, either.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Universal Records, and is used for informational purposes only.