Fading West

Switchfoot

Atlantic, 2014

http://www.switchfoot.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/10/2014

One of the hardest reviews to write is the one about the band you love that stumbles.

Switchfoot is a group that has never been content to rest on its laurels. They’ve always seemed determined to keep pushing, keeping trying new things, album after album; it’s one of the many things I respect about them. Much like their spiritual forebears U2 did on the Pop album, Switchfoot take some significant risks on Fading West. As they should—but the thing about risks is that, to borrow the surfing theme that forms a backdrop for this album, sometimes you slice down the face of a big wave like you’re flying, and sometimes the wave chews you up and spits you out.

Produced by Neal Avron (Everclear, New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy) with Jon Foreman (vocals/guitars) and Tim Foreman (bass/vocals), Fading West finds the group—which also features Chad Butler (drums), Jerome Fontamillas (keys/guitars/vocals) and Drew Shirley (lead guitar)—cutting hard toward the center and a mainstream pop sound. Why is unclear, given the band’s still-recent struggle to free themselves of the very label pressures that would normally be indicated by such a move, but the new sound reigns supreme from start to finish, with regrettable results.

Openers “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight” and “Who We Are” are a strong pair of songs that could have and should have formed a great one-two punch, just the way you would want Switchfoot to open an album—if only you could completely hear the songs underneath all the layers of auto-tuned background vocals, doubled and tripled beats, and fussy, overcrowded arrangements. There’s a band in there somewhere, but the production is so dense that you almost lose them inside it.

This turns from a shame to a crime when you get to a song with the potential of “When We Come Alive,” whose powerful lyric is buried inside infinite-echo multi-tracked background vocals that seem intended to help the chorus blow the roof off, but ironically have the opposite effect, undercutting the whole song by making it sound like they're trying too hard, like a bench player desperate to bulk up with musical steroids. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better argument for “less is more” than this track.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Jon Foreman has played around with a hip-hop flow in his lyrics and delivery more and more in recent years, and he has both the lyrical chops and the laconic surfer charm in his vocals to pull it off. He whips off some especially good lines in the heaviest song here, “Say It Like You Mean It,” but ultimately the track is so jam-packed with distorted vocals and dense layers of gimmicked-up sound that it starts to feel like some kind of Linkin Park rap-metal mess.

Even my favorite song here, “The World You Want,” rich with Foreman’s characteristic wounded-yet-indomitable idealism, is marred by the echo-drenched production and mega-multi-tracked background vocals. Similar in terms of squandered potential, “Ba55” features a cool vibe courtesy of Tim Foreman’s urgent bass line, but could have been stronger without the relentless overproduction and multi-tracked synths.

“Slipping Away” arrives as the worst offender yet, full of processed vocals and devoid of a single instrument that sounds organic and real. But the bottom doesn’t appear until you reach “Let It Out,” possibly my least favorite song in the history of Switchfoot. Not because of the lyric—it’s as solid as any here—but in Avron’s hands, the track has been tarted up with so much production lipstick and eye-shadow and just plain cheese that it sounds utterly generic. It pains me no end to write these words, but: it sounds like One Direction. For a band whose finest moments have drawn comparisons to Led Zeppelin, that’s a huge (and not at all beautiful) letdown.  

“All Or Nothing At All” repeats these flaws with auto-tuned background vocals and irritating echo, and “Saltwater Heart” compounds them, undercutting an evocative lyric—an intense meditation on surfing and solitude—with production so over the top it could have been borrowed from a Celine Dion single. Closer “Back To The Beginning Again” tries hard but does so while riding a house beat that sounds like it might have come off the last Maroon 5 album; nuff said.

In the end, the misguided production approach turns a strong set of songs into Switchfoot’s weakest album in more than a decade, and therefore their most disappointing to date. I wish I could call this one differently—Switchfoot remains among my favorite bands and Jon Foreman among my favorite lyricists, but it is what it is—an awkward, ill-conceived feint in a musical direction that never has and never will fit what this group was born to do.

What the uber-commercial production accomplishes is to make the music on this album feel both common and artificial, when the very thing that has always been special about Switchfoot is that their music is uncommonly genuine and real. At its best, Switchfoot is capable of delivering thundering anthems and plaintive meditations with equally raw, heart-on-their-sleeve power and impact. This is a band that should never sound the way the music on Fading West sounds: distant, slick, and worst of all, ordinary.

Maybe one day we’ll be treated to Fading West…Naked, with these songs stripped of all the studio gimmickry and allowed to breathe. In the meantime, though, I can only rate what’s here, which gets an A- for the songs, and a D- for the production.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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