by Chad Jewett
It speaks to an intrepid streak in the D.C. post-hardcore veterans Fairweather that the band continues to search out inspiration on the edges of the contexts into which we casually place them. 2003 found emo bands condensing their songs into easy bursts; Fairweather layered their gift for melody amongst suite-length songs and long-form blankets of shoegaze and post-rock on the tremendous Lusitania. The last couple years have been rife with bands who were clearly all ears when Fairweather was pairing pop instincts to winding, calligraphic guitars on If They Move…Kill Them; Fairweather arrives in that sound’s renaissance, yet is utterly characterized by minor-key angularity and athletic directness, more Jawbox than Jawbreaker. In an era when the expanse and ornateness of their first two albums would have a considerably greater chance of reaching the kid brothers and sisters of the audiences who quit too easily on songs like “The Treachery of Images,” Fairweather has instead opted for a compact, swift, and utterly compelling new version of themselves. That they title their newest album (and third for legendary New York hardcore label Equal Vision Records) Fairweather speaks volumes about what the punk quintet wants you to realize: that this record’s thirty-odd minutes are essential; Fairweather is an album of carbon pressed into sharply-cut diamonds.
I intend all the angularity and acute edges that implies. And, in fact, the album begins with its greatest example of Fairweather’s new-found interest in geometrically precise punk. “Carte Blanche” comes and goes in seventy-five seconds, a spry Lifetime-esque sprint that explodes around sheets of finely-cut guitars and a monolithic rhythm-engine, a sleek and absurdly refreshing burst, illuminated by Jay Littleton’s ebullient upper-tenor. There’s a thesis hidden in his opening words (delivered in his unmistakable melodic touch, always finding direct tunes for brainy mouthfuls): “We took the last of the bending / But not the break.” Distant shouts halo the second half of that line and you realize the play on words – the decade long gap the band took, along with its refusal to be anything other than Fairweather – a group that took a break, but refuses to be broken. There’s an intangible quality to just how revelatory “Carte Blanche” feels – perhaps because so few bands are investing in this song’s aesthetic of supercharged, laser-hewn tunefulness, or because melodic punk doesn’t come up much, or because we’ve never quite heard Fairweather sound so utterly alive, so hungry, so feral – but the song nevertheless remains an early highlight of the young year.
The band’s newly-placed premium on finding new geometry for its whittled bite finds purchase on “Survival Is Not Enough,” a dynamic mid-tempo stomp thick with the accented attack of Drive Like Jehu or even Ceremony. Verses and choruses settle and soar the way Fairweather always has, but these moments come in between shifting plates of garage-slab guitars that are an utterly new angle for the band. In a review of “Doubt the Doubtless,” the album’s most barbed, D.C.-centric song, I mentioned the compelling hints we were getting of the band’s increasing taste for horizontal rhythms rather than the typical verticality of punk. “Survival Is Not Enough” revels in the Maximum R&B possibilities of guitars slashing sideways, pairing Fairweather’s dramatic melodies with glancing blows of proto-punk groove.
Elsewhere, Fairweather moves swiftly along finely-traced plats of melodic-hardcore. “Reset Position” and “Memoria” rush and swing respectively, but do so along gorgeously –recorded ice-floes of tensed guitars. “Memoria” is especially beautiful, occasionally lifting from its taut verses and interludes into a sweetly harmonized chorus, wisps of falsetto accents haloing Littleton’s keening melody: “My memory won’t keep me from drowning / Keep me breathing” (again, we get a sense that “Fairweather” is foremost on Fairweather’s mind; that these are songs about art and survival, and their twined relationship). There are similar moments on the best Saves The Day albums; they’re the moments where punk rock can feel like apotheosis; when brightness cracks open hardcore’s brittle exteriors like the stone around gems. “Memoria,” like the rest of the album, is radiant in these passages, whenever it brightens its own corners, enunciating both the dark and light that define Fairweather’s increasingly coiled aesthetic.
Fairweather closes with the album’s two best songs, tracks that grasp the album’s unique mixture of punk melodicism with absolute abandon. “Still Waiting” is rivaled only by the sheer endorphin-wash of “Carte Blanche” in terms of its defining role here. And like “Carte Blanche,” “Still Waiting” begins as a brawny, combustible punk song that slowly complicates itself with increasingly rich pallets of harmony and pop-craft tunefulness. Littleton’s melodies, as they so often do, arc up from sharpness and into lovely major-keys. Guitars follow suit, formerly cutting like falling icicles, they curl, in the song’s choruses, into short octave-riffs reminiscent of golden era Vagrant Records. Indeed, just as Littleton finds understated complexity in the different ways his melodies can glance across the hardened surface of Fairweather, so too does the twin guitar attack of Ben Green and Peter Tsouras find rich overtones and subtle variations in punk’s monolithic absoluteness. “Still Waiting” excels in this regard, always eclipsing biting post-hardcore with swooning harmony, and vice versa.
“No Flags To Fly” is our final glimpse at the new life Fairweather has found in digging in to the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of jagged melodic punk. Beginning with punch-drunk stabs of cut-glass guitar, the song swings in tangled tension like a generation of Fairweather’s fellow metro-D.C. godfathers (Hoover, Fugazi, Honor Role, Moss Icon – your pick … though the near-whisper of the song’s incredible second verse has a high-drama MacKaye/Picciotto playfulness to it) before blossoming into a sweeping chorus. Upper-register guitars curl in rivulets evocative of Lusitania, looping around Littleton’s melody-rich closing thoughts: “Well I thought I had the language / I thought my message was clear / What I mean, What I say, they’re the same things mostly / So pick one and move on.”
Ultimately, the hidden complexities and under-the-surface grace notes of Fairweather find expression in that last missive. Fairweather is an album about its creators; it’s a short-form epic about five men trying to get in tune with themselves and each other, trying to find what sustainable relationships there are to be had between adulthood, punk rock, and a difficult legacy of brilliant statements and critical/community misunderstanding. The album cover features a night-sky nearly blotting a picket fence, and a million interpretations boil over – thoughts about the doubts accompanying the tough choices between domestic solidity and the possibilities of punk life; interesting visual echoes of the album’s angular, moody take on the band’s once bright, looping emo effervescence; the idea that the verdant lawn of Lusitania is likely just below our frame of perspective, similarly darkened by a night sky. And like all great records, these notions, even if they conflict and contort, are all there. Fairweather, like so many great post-hardcore albums, finds a chaotic symphony’s worth of ideas just by glimpsing out a window, while seeing one’s reflection in the glass. It is an album marked by that odd dissonance, between crystalline clarity and the furiously opaque.
(Check back next week for our feature on Fairweather’s return, their thoughts on their history, and more.)