[Editor’s note: The Bollard was unable to get permission to post a song from this album prior to publication of this review. The band’s MySpace page has several tracks you can listen to and download free of charge.]
As a child, I remember my mother frequently returning from vacations sporting a new handbag, which she would offer for my examination. I would dutifully pass my eyes over the hand-stitched leather, printed silk lining or magnetic snaps, and look blankly at my mom. She, in turn, would smile at the handbag and then at me and remark, “Look at the craftsmanship!” I’d try to muster some enthusiasm, but I’ve never been that into handbags; no matter how well they’re crafted, they’re just not my thing.
Similarly, Open Letter to the Damned, the new release from Portland’s soon-to-be success story, As Fast As, leaves me a bit cold. As with the above-mentioned handbags, the craftsmanship is impeccable, featuring an array of precisely calibrated flourishes and perfectly executed details that nevertheless fail to arouse genuine interest.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons why people other than me (who, as it turns out, are in the majority) will love this album to pieces. Every member of As Fast As is a consummate musician. Seriously, “tight” doesn’t even begin to come close to describing the performances on these 11 tracks. Singer and principal songwriter Spencer Albee has the market cornered on rock ‘n’ roll vocals, liberally mining from both the classic rock lexicon and the alternative songbook, while lead guitar player Zach Jones finds ample occasions to step forward and lay down some ridiculously well-played, technique-laden solos. Andrew Hodgkins and Hache Horchatta, on drums and bass respectively, do with precision and simplicity exactly what the radio-rock format calls for: they alternately hold down the groove and then rock the hell out.
The production all across the board is clear and evenly handled. Albee pitches in on several tracks, as does local super-producer Jonathan Wyman, but the bulk of the work is handled Matt Wallace and Mike Landolt, a couple of relative heavy-weights. Wallace has produced records by Faith No More, Blues Traveler and The Replacements, while Landolt (the comparatively lighter-weight member of the pair) did engineering work with Mushroomhead and Maroon 5, and on theLove Actually soundtrack. Wallace and Landolt do a good job giving As Fast As a big, glossy sound that suits the band well and is supremely easy – though rather uninspiring – to listen to.
The one moment when the production really shines occurs on the title track (which Wallace, Albee and Landolt worked on together). The song opens with doubled-up acoustic guitars that are shortly underscored by the sort of chunky, hi-lo keyboard tones that made the Flaming Lips album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots such a charmer. It’s a nice moment and, for me, the highlight of the album.
Unfortunately, the moment passes quickly and this approach doesn’t return on other tracks. For the most part, As Fast As stick close to the alternative-rock-radio format, occasionally sounding like Foo Fighters, Jet, Smash Mouth and a host of others. Fans of these bands will no doubt flip for this album, but folks who don’t have WCYY as one of the presets in their car radio should probably steer clear.
As Fast As obviously isn’t trying to reinvent a genre or forge any new ground with this album; they’re trying to make a hit record, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this album propels them to much greater national notoriety. The 11 songs here all sound like radio hits or summer-blockbuster-soundtrack material, especially “Florida Sunshine,” which boasts its own ringtone. (You can get it by text messaging “AFA” to 33992).
Octone Records, the label that released Open Letter, specializes in “developing lifestyle-oriented alternative and rock artists,” and is the training ground for the larger and more prestigious J Records (which boasts releases from Pearl Jam, Whitney Huston, and a couple of American Idol graduates). With that kind of potential support behind them, their formidable ability as musicians, and their commercial savvy, expect As Fast As to travel a long way on this bland album.
— Galen Richmond
Open Letter to the Damned is in stores now.