Affectation is a dangerous thing. There are few things more likely to irritate than the sense that a band is not being honest – or, even worse, a feeling that they have made their choices based not on their own convictions but instead on an idea of what they think they should sound like.
Tu Fawning, for reasons best known to themselves, have chosen to call their debut album Hearts On Hold – thereby managing to find a title that sounds exactly like it has been decided upon by a committee of marketing professionals. Having come up with the name, it seems that this committee has then decided to write an album that they imagine will be described using adjectives like ‘stirring’, or ‘dark’.
And they are probably right. Hearts On Hold certainly is dark; almost unrelentingly so. Revolving around founders Joe Haege and Corrina Repp (he a member of Menomena, she a folk artist and on-off Viva Voce collaborator), Tu Fawning is the product of a distinctly Northwestern marriage. Both songwriters are based in Portland, and the influence of this strange city, now almost mythical in indie terms, looms large. Into the Oregon gloom, though, Tu Fawning have mixed something distinctly European; the feel, perhaps, of a slightly unhinged Parisian burlesque, or a looming Balkan shuffle.
Hearts On Hold begins promisingly enough. Opener ‘I Know You Know’ sees splutters of Twenties music hall drift in Avalanches-esque, while Repp croons alluringly about Big Relationship Issues. The mood is ominous, Repp’s vocals seemingly bated with some barely concealed threat.
This sense of unease pervades the album, but while it helps to create something gripping on ‘I Know You Know’, elsewhere it fails to convince. ‘Sad Story’ sounds like someone played the marketing committee a Beirut b-side, while ‘Hand Grenade’ is as dully self-conscious as the title would suggest.
Some of the brightest moments occur, almost inevitably, when Haege and Repp dispense with the affectations. When, as on ‘Apples’, the band’s more melodic tendencies are allowed to cut through the gloom, the results are delightful. Just as enjoyable is the rhythm section, which provides more than its fair share of innovation.
Indeed, it is the drumming that quickly becomes the hinge on which the entire album swings. Unexpected rhythmic shifts help to give Hearts On Hold some shape, but these scattered moments of invention are not enough to salvage a record that is almost entirely hobbled by its own affectations. Where Tu Fawning aim for heartfelt, they end up sounding clinical. Where they shoot for brooding, they end up sounding calculated.
And therein lies the problem with Hearts On Hold. It’s not a bad record. There are three or four tracks here that are deserving of your time, and ‘I Know You Know’ is worthy of repeat listens. But the whole affair seems far too studied, too deliberate. Tu Fawning have smothered their album in mere approximations of passion, as if in an attempt to hide the fact that there is, sadly, very little real emotion or genuine sentiment here. There is very little that can salvage a record on which the band sounds like they are faking it. And you can always, always tell when someone’s faking it.
5Josh Hall's Score