Aim & Ignite
Independent release, 2009
REVIEW BY: Jono Russell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/14/2009
In terms of being a music fan, just about the worst thing you can hear is that your favorite band is calling it quits, but in February last year, that’s the news I awoke to. The Format, consisting mainly of vocalist Nate Ruess and guitarist Sam Means, were no more – two years after releasing an album, Dog Problems, that even after all that time was still a regular fixture in my CD player. Even now, barely a month goes by without a listen. That collection of twelve surprisingly uplifting indie pop gems, detailing the aftermath of a breakup and Ruess’ broken heart, was certainly the high point in the band’s career (despite the early demos being the reason they were dropped by Atlantic). And not only had the band hit their creative stride, they’d also become one of the first acts to succeed while bypassing the traditional major label machine. According to their then-manager, they shifted 70,000 copies of Dog Problems, largely thanks to word of mouth across the internet. Unlike recent Oasis developments, the split came as a shock.
But Ruess is too talented a songwriter to not be writing songs, and it was not a surprise when he announced a new project – a band (somewhat lamely) titled Fun., consisting of Nate, Andrew Dost (Anathello) and Jack Antonoff (Steel Train). The group began recording their debut album in September last year and, almost a year later, the result is finally here: Aim & Ignite. And while it’s clear this is the same strong voice and songwriting chops that brought us Dog Problems, the showy arrangements have been ramped up, resulting in more than a few comparisons to Queen. There’s been no shortcuts in putting together this epic: choirs, orchestras, horns, strings, handclaps, and female backing vocalists are all utilized at various points throughout a sonic rollercoaster ride that lasts a touch over 40 minutes.
Take the opening track, for example. For a song titled “Be Calm,” there’s certainly a lot going on. Organ and violins provide backing as Ruess sets the tone for the record: “I’ve reclaimed the use of my imagination / For better or for worse I’m yet to know,” until the first chorus, when just guitar strums allow the vocals maximum impact. “Be calm / Be calm / I know that you feel like you are breaking down,” Ruess urges himself. But instead of keeping things simple, the song morphs into a manic duet with Anna Waronker, backed by what seems like countless instruments, all providing their own pretty melodic contributions. It could have so easily ended up as an overblown mess of noise – yet it doesn’t. And that’s the dangerous line Fun. straddle for much of their debut release, making it one of those albums you’re either going to adore or hate.
Just as you’ve finished digesting the opener, Ruess leads a choir in an a cappella rendition of the “Benson Hedges” chorus, a track that was originally destined to appear on the next Format release. “Holy ghosts / Won’t you come out to play / ‘Cause if the Lord is gonna fine me / He’d better start looking today,” they belt out, not entirely unlike the choral intro to “Fat Bottomed Girls.” In its earlier incarnation with The Format, it was performed with just acoustic backing, but the full blown Fun. arrangement and tempo boost is undoubtedly an improvement.
The hooks just keep coming. “All The Pretty Girls” has to be one of the most addictive pop songs released this year, with a chorus that will take up residence in your brain for at least a month after listening. It’s joyously happy, despite seemingly being another of Ruess’ songs about pining over one girl in particular: “I say ‘I’ve never heard the tune!’ / But I have, I just hate the band because they remind me of you,” he laments, before ending with the conclusion that “all the pretty girls can’t measure to you.” It’s ostensibly another breakup tune, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to the soaring string parts underneath.
But a breakup is certainly not the overriding focus of Aim & Ignite; in fact, Ruess’ lyrics this time around are for the most part optimistic. Gone is the clever cynicism of Dog Problems – a move to New York and a change of band seems to have worked wonders. There’s even a song title to support this theory: “At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used To Be).”
Perhaps the only fault of this disc is that you can overdo too much of a good thing – and it does get a bit too sugary in parts. “The Gambler” recounts the love story of Ruess’ parents and perhaps the theater of the arrangements starts to influence the lyrics: “I swear when I grow up / I won’t just buy you a rose / I will buy you the flower shop / And you will never be lonely,” he sings earnestly, as if treading the boards of Broadway.
The jury is out as to whether Aim & Ignite will have the lasting appeal of Dog Problems, but it’s tempting to suggest that Ruess’ new band have not only equalled the quality of The Format’s output in their prime, but may have even topped it. This record manages to be complex enough to be musically and lyrically interesting months after the first listen, while also boasting the amount of unforgettable hooks you’d expect from a band titled Fun. After all, this album is likely to have you grinning so much, even the band name begins to make sense.