Thursday, May 8, 2008

For Against -- Shade Side Sunny Side (2008)

For Against -- Shade Side Sunny Side (Words On Music)

After album after album of great songs built on atmospheric swirling guitar, For Against’s long awaited new album manages to maintain some of the band’s musical sensibility while charting out new territory. The band still has a spacious sound, but instead of filling it with sparkling six-string sounds, the music has a much harder edge. This is the only way to accompany the bitter lyrics that Jeffrey Runnings has penned on almost every track.

The album starts off in menacing fashion. As Runnings sings, “You can only get so far/with that jenay say qwa [Pardon my phonetic French. I took Spanish in high school -- so sue me],” the instrumental backing is faint. Then Paul Englehard (drums) and Runnings (bass) kick in and Harry Dingman III unleashes lacerated guitar lines. Runnings is pissed off and the floating melodies that typify For Against tense up. The first time I heard this, it was a shock, but it’s a powerful opening cut.

“Game Over” is equally powerful, without any guitars putting it over the top. This is a haunting piano piece. As the title indicates, the relationship is done. As Runnings ruminates, he cuts back on the sorrow by noting that “sometimes it wasn’t so fun.” The song stretches out, juxtaposing the mournful, defiant verses with increasingly intense instrumental interludes, building to a slow thunderstorm of guitar fury. This song seethes so beautifully.

All throughout, Runnings keeps his lyrics fairly economical and extremely direct. There is no need for him to go overboard with the words, because the music is in perfect sympathy with what he’s singing.

Although some of this is pretty dark, there are some very strong melodies to be enjoyed. Indeed, “Underestimate” is on par with the best work of Richard Barone, either solo or with The Bongos. The downcast melody in the verse suddenly elevates into the refrain, Runnings singing as well as he ever has and showing his range. The song adds a slowed down middle eight which really brings the loathing expressed throughout the track home. Someone must have really done Runnings wrong.

Most of the album is urgent and, well, tense. But it’s channeled tension, in the classic sense of using music as a release to deal with one’s problems. This manifests itself in both the explosive “Aftertaste”, which is as rocking a number as this band has ever recorded, and the percussive “Friendly Fires”, where the rhythm carries the song, and the guitars get to the verge of breaking out, but never quite boil over. This is the heart of darkness, or the darkness of the heart, I suppose.

It is a real credit to For Against that the band continues to grow and progress musically, finding new ways to play to its strengths. For longtime fans, it might take a little bit to get used to, but this ranks right up there with For Against’s best.

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