Fair to Midland is Back and Worth a Listen

There was a time not too long ago when a major-label contract meant, often enough, a one-way ticket to commercial success for a band.  The heyday of marketed emo music (a la Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights) saw immaculately produced albums from bands that had scarcely cut their teeth with live performance.  The demise of big-name record labels, largely due to piracy and declining physical CD sales, coupled with increasing numbers of websites attempting to scope out the "next big thing", have brought some different musical business trends: the Indie record label, the "lo-fi" trendy sound, the laptop artist, and the blogosphere superstar. Fair to Midland, a quintet originating from Sulpher Springs, Texas, have outlived each and every one of these trends.  Initially formed in 1998, the band self-released two albums before being signed by a record label operated by System of a Down's Serj Tankein, Serjical Strike Records.  The signing, which netted widespread distribution of Fables From a Mayfly, the band's 2007 major label debut, granted them appearances with alt-rock titans such as Queens of the Stoneage, Smashing Pumpkins, and Muse.  Despite critical acclaim for the album (Sputnik Music even listing it as one of the top 100 albums of the 2000s), the band found themselves eventually displaced from the label and suddenly in creative and financial limbo.  With constant tour appearances, the band's future seemed in question: Even for titans of alternative music, four years stood as a monumental waiting game for anxious fans, even as demo-recordings of a handful of tracks leaked to the internet.

The wait, as it turns out, was worth every second.  On July 12th, Fair to Midland released their fourth studio album, the triumphant Arrows and Anchors on E1 Records.  Boasting 15 tracks, including several of the group's iconic interludes, the album is, without a doubt, the best release of 2011.  Fair to Midland's sound has always been difficult to classify; it's a combination of hard rock, ambient electronics, and shoegaze aesthetics.  On the album opener (spare for a brief organ introduction), the towering "Whisky and Ritalin," the group turns a discordant intro into a danceable punk groove before launching to the stratosphere by showing off one of their signature melodic choruses.  Those unacquainted with modern hard rock should look no further for an introduction to the genre: no other band can write a hook that utilizes the elements of the genre with such refined skill.

Track-by-track, Arrows and Anchors holds its own quality-wise against any album of the last five years.  On lead single "Musical Chairs," bassist Jon Dicken takes the band through a groove-oriented verse that offers just a small sample of his remarkable contributions to the band's identity.  "Amarillo Sleeps on my Pillow" (which can be downloaded for free from the band's website) has guitarist Cliff Campbell wielding instruments typically reserved for country music, including a resonator and banjo, before launching into an unparalleled chorus of down-tuned syncopated guitars.  Drummer Brett Stowers's off-beat rhythms on "Short-Haired Tornado" power into a chorus that would make Icelandic post-rock titans Sigur Ros jealous, and on the penultimate track, keyboardist Matt Langley powers a groovy synth line resting above some of the heaviest guitar work on the album.  Throughout, vocalist Darroh Sudderth makes a compelling argument for being the best vocalist in modern music, demonstrating tremendous range and dynamic ability, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics incorporating folksy sayings alongside vivid imagery.  But, just like in sports, it's not the individual performances that matter, but those of the entire team, and Fair to Midland is peerless in this regard.  Never has the whole been this much greater than the sum of its parts.

The resulting record is immediately gripping and endlessly listenable, yet even in the face of such a record, Fair to Midland suffers from the ironic fate of being a band that can't seem to break through to mainstream success purely because of how unique they are.  Attempts to describe the band in terms of other artists are futile: Fair to Midland simply ARE Fair to Midland.  It is here, however, that one of the band’s other remarkable strengths comes into play (no pun intended).

The modern musician has at his/her disposal a literal arsenal of tools to keep in touch with their fans.  Facebook and Twitter enable even the prolific likes of Kanye West and Lady Gaga to network directly with fans, and while Fair to Midland makes use of Facebook, a band that’s been around since 1998 has a few other electronic tricks up their sleeves.  Back in the younger days of the Internet, bands frequently set up online forums to pass news to fans and to unite them under a single banner in the form of street teams.  While this tradition has, for the most part, gone by the wayside, Fair to Midland’s fan community remains vibrant and strong, with a street team spreading word of the group all over the United States, Europe, and rest of the world.  Fair to Midland’s forum is even moderated by a member of the band, Stowers, and frequently is used as a way to foster dialogue from performers to enthusiasts and vice versa.

For all that electronic presence, nothing can truly compare to face-to-face interaction, and no other band offers such care for their fans.  At a typical Fair to Midland concert, the band members can be found mingling outside the venue, taking photos and excitedly signing merchandise for those there to watch them play.  The personality comes across in live shows with exuberant theatrics and from, it should be said, being proper human beings in general.  Many artists (Kings of Leon notoriously come to mind) find their careers catapulted into the spotlight, only to lose touch with their suddenly massive fanbase.  For these fellows from Texas, the give-and-take with this fanbase has always been an elemental part of their identity and success.  It very well could be the old adage, don’t forget where you came from.  Fair to Midland has not forgotten.  As the band prepares for a European tour to close out a momentous year with future domestic tour dates around the corner, 2012 could be their time to shine, and shine they deserve.  If ever an act had paid their dues to the open road, it would be these boys, with a folksy sentiment not often seen in contemporary music.

Want more music from Dan Evans? Check out his 3 part series on can rap be saved? Here is part one, two and three.