Dallas, Texas-based quintet Fair to Midland’s fourth full-length album Arrows & Anchors is an album that’s bombastic, busy, and quite possibly one of the best released this year. To explain, Fair to Midland have gone through several iterations of their sound, from the all-out metallic aggression of their debut (2002’s notoriously difficult to track down The Carbon Copy Silver Lining) to the comparatively polished blend of prog, rock, and shoegaze found on 2007’s Fables from a Mayfly. All the while, the band has evidenced a handful of constants that unify their sound. One such connective fiber is the vocals of Darroh Sudderth, who can shift from soaring highs to almost comically thunderous roaring within the same lyrical phrase. His diversity and range is impressive, to say the least, and has only grown with time—as has the band as a whole.
And while Sudderth’s strength may be firmly in place on Arrows & Anchors (witness the chorus of “Musical Chairs,” the Texas twang of “Amarillo Sleeps on my Pillow” [on which he also plays banjo], or the musical schizophrenia of “Rikki Tikki Tavi”), it only works because it’s supported by such a strong set of instrumentals. Keyboardist Matt Langley is responsible for much of the atmospheric padding and supplementary riffs for the album, but is also allowed several opportunities to take center stage, as on the organ-driven pieces that bookend the album, or many of the interludes throughout. The rhythm section provides a solid bulwark, with Brett Stowers’ energetic drumming and Jon Dicken’s bass work adding the finely tuned oomph that drives both exercises in intensity like “Whiskey & Ritalin” and milder grooves like “Bright Bulbs & Sharp Tools.”
Guitarist Cliff Campbell is perhaps the closest companion to Sudderth’s vocals, though, in that his lines can move from the beautiful and ethereal to the distorted and crunchy with both hairpin speed and cohesive naturalness (see “A Loophole in Limbo” or, again, “Rikki Tikki Tavi”). He also, incidentally, happens to be a good representative of another crucial constant for the band, and quite possibly the most important: their sense of scale. Although most of the non-interlude tracks hover in the four minute range, each is packed with flourishes that make them feel much grander in size than they actually are (in a good way). From the distant background vocals and effects in the somewhat simple but undeniably infectious “Coppertank Island,” to the continuous rising action of “Short-Haired Tornado,” which culminates in a melodic outro reminiscent of The Earth Sings Fi Ma Fi-era The Receiving End of Sirens, Arrows & Anchors possesses a musical ambition that could have easily come off as cluttered and extravagant in less capable hands.
Fortunately, the band has experience enough to know how to craft a tune that runs a musical gamut, but leaves the listener craving more. A perfect example is album closer “The Greener Grass” (not counting exclusive bonus track “Pour the Coal to ‘Er”), an epic truly deserving of the far overused term. Unlike most of its peers, the track actually exceeds the ten-minute mark–but it never feels stale; chalk it up to the gorgeous, sweeping melodies, or Sudderth’s characteristically strong lyrics, which have a way of tweaking clichés into clever brilliance (sample line: “I’d rather find Jesus outside of a book / The same thing goes for Robin Hood / Never darken my door again / If opportunity knocks, let’s make it beg”), or the frequent, finesse-filled dynamic shifts, but something simply makes the track work. By the time Langley’s keys reappear, in full-on Philip Glass Koyaanisqatsi mode, it becomes clear just how much Fair to Midland can achieve with their lofty ambitions.
By that same token, there’s a risk the album takes of overwhelming its listeners by piling on song after song of such over-the-top assemblage. The interludes are also a mixed bag, offering much needed breathers between the bombastic barrages, but also smacking distinctly of filler from time to time. Admittedly, the album is difficult to digest in a single sitting, or even three or four. It’s almost alienating by design, since there’s nary a piece of unchallenging music to be found within the intricate multi-layering on display. However, at some point, the melodies become more familiar than foreign, graspable enough that Arrows & Anchors suddenly feels less like inundation and more like envelopment. The listener is transported by a collective of continuously evolving musical ideas that gel into a whole that may be bloated or burdened at times, but is no doubt all the better for it.
Arrows and Anchors is currently available from all major online retailers. It is offered for $9.99 by national chain Best Buy, or new from local business The Sound Garden in Fells Point for $12.99.