Friday, November 2, 2007

review of Fibulator - Even From Here You Look Big

The Oakland, California band Fibulator never became well known, but they sure did make some interesting music, and two great vinyl records. In later interviews the members unanimously panned this, their first vinyl but second overall release, as they did also when I talked to them about it in 1994. At that time they much preferred the work they had just created, their second vinyl album drankfromtheasphalt. Personally, although the latter is an equally great record, I have always liked Even From Here You Look Big a bit more.

Fibulator's sound is hard to describe. My first impression was that they reminded me of Art Bears, Fred Frith's post Henry Cow band from the late 70's. But i later understood them to be influenced by other San Francisco Bay area bands like The Residents and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, both being not too far from the Art Rock path (sic). But influences aside, Fibulator's music is complex, engaging, and at times funky, ambient, quirky, angular, and darkly humorous (and more).

The main lyrical theme that seems to thread through Even From Here You Look Big is that of emotional manipulation. That idea is present in several songs which dissect different kinds of relationships. The theme definitely translates for me as a concept, although most bands would vomit at the suggestion that they've made a concept album.

The first track on the album where the theme seems most evident is Confuse Me. The lyrics concern a situation where the singer is arguing with a stalker-y sort of guy, perhaps a fan. Some of the best moments play on dark humor, "Don't send me letters filled with my old poems....Remember this song's really not about you", with the refrain always being something to the effect of "I can't be your friend, you're trying to confuse me". There's an emotional tension that is wonderfully captured in the vocal performances and equally supported in the well-crafted and well-played music.

In Slabsides, another kind of relationship is presented. The protagonist, identified on the lyric sheet as Laura, reveals a manipulative nature as she burns ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass. But she is reflective about the act, and philosophizes about her mental state and how her environment contributes to her whim. Again the vocal parts are emotively acted out with strong dynamics that elevate the song to more of an experience. Just like a movie where you forget that there are actors reading lines, you begin to live in Fibulator's songs.

On the second side of this vinyl only release, the song Waiter deals with yet another manipulative character, this time a random coffee shop patron. The song isn't about the waiter, but rather about the brief relationship between a woman sitting at the counter waiting for a bus and a bullying man trying to talk to her. Halfway through his bullying she begins pleading with the waiter "can i have a glass of water? you have the right time?......can I get an ashtray?......I need another napkin please" as she nervously endures the patron's intimidating tones. You can feel her frustration as she tries to divert attention away from the man, hoping perhaps that he'll just leave her alone. When she does speak to him he makes her doubt her answers as he mocks them. When at one point she passively agrees "i guess so", he aggressively digs in, "What, what, what, what do you mean you guess so?" to which she stutters, "i-i-i, i-i, i mean i think i don't really know....why can't i say what i mean?"

Prelude to the Cactus seems to be a short glimpse of a father/daughter dinner engagement and features a strange, one sided, philosophic conversation. The daughter at one point questions, "Father will you forsake me?" and goes on, "Knowing that you will, i'll forsake you first, i'll skirt the worst, my family will love me still, and i will know this with bitterness."

There are complicated emotional processes going on in these scenarios, and they are all presented in perfectly matched musical environments. The vocals range from the furious screamed chorus of Slabsides, to gentle whispers in Loose Ends, to the almost operatic Prelude to the Cactus.

Musically, Fibulator utilized odd time signatures and jarring stop/start arrangements. They created musical worlds with their songs. There's tension, dynamics, loping repetition, moody atmospheres, and grooves aplenty. The melodies are catchy, but not in a hooky top-40 way. It's clear that the members of this group had imagination, and knew how to work well together to come up with multi-faceted rock compositions in which no one instrument or voice ever dominates. They were a true group in the best sense.

The musicianship is of a very high quality while still having a loose, improvisational feel. The songs aren't over-rehearsed, and seem very organic. Like i said before, you could live inside this music, and take in the musical landscapes that they have created. It is one of the most engaging records i've ever heard. Finding a copy may be difficult as the band broke up in the late 90's. If you want one but can't find a copy, contact me....maybe we can work something out.

Even From Here You Look Big and drankfromtheasphalt were originally released on Electro Motive Records. Their final album, unhammerlike, is still available on CD at Silly Bird Records.


Kelly O said...

Did those guys stay with us when we lived in AZ? I vaguely recall that they were a swell gang.

TFO said...

i recorded some demos for them at our small apartment on 9th and Ash in Tempe, and they had stayed with Aimee the night before, which was when we opened for them at Metropophobobia in Phoenix.