4 of 4 thought this review was well written
For the life of me, I can’t understand why The Faint hasn’t yet become the next big thing. They’re indie enough to net points with the underground crowd but accessible enough to have scored a few radio singles and a track on a Tony Hawk video game soundtrack. Their music features some of the best keyboards and synths seen this side of the 80’s, yet they feel like a completely legitimate alt rock group with their searing basslines and live drumming. On top of that, they put on one of the danciest, most rocking live shows I’ve ever seen.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, The Faint did start out as just another soft, emotional indie band (Bright Eyes’s Conor Oberst was even once part of the early lineup). Their first LP, Media (1998), showed them to be a more than competent indie rock outfit, but it didn’t do much to set them apart from any of their peers.
The group’s sophomore offering, 1999’s Blank-Wave Arcade, thus came as a very pleasant surprise. Everything that Media lacked in originality and vitality was more than made up for with Blank-Wave’s contagious synthpop beats and throbbing basslines. Much of this change has been accredited to Jacob Thiele, who joined the band after Media and programmed synths for this album. So profound is this new influence that it’s hard to believe that the band behind Media’s lukewarm indie ballads is the same in command of Blank-Wave’s cascading barrages of electronic noise and slick dance beats. Whereas lead singer Todd Baechle’s keyboarding prowess had its place on several key tracks off of Media, it comes out strong with the opening notes of leadoff Blank-Wave track “Sex Is Personal," and never lets go for the rest of the album.
The catchy keyboard beats and thick, noisy layers of synthesizers perfectly match Baechle’s vocal work, which walks the line between mechanical detachment fiery angst. On tracks like “Worked Up So Sexual," he vacillates between sardonic chanting and raw despair, all behind a range of irresistible synthpop wizardry. While both vocals and lyrics would become more nuanced in later releases, Baechle’s presence is still haunting and poignant throughout the album.
Some of the nicer moments on Blank-Wave Arcade come from the well-coordinated song transitions. “Call Call" collapses at its conclusion into fuzzy keyboards that then morph into the maddening beat behind “Worked Up So Sexual". Similarly, the slow, remorseful “Cars Pass in Cold Blood" unexpectedly explodes in a wall of sound that eventually coalesces into the devious “Casual Sex", which tells the story of a “new wave soldier" and his unchecked desire for a young nun.
With dark, suggestive lyrics, irresistible dance beats, and haunting synthesizers, Blank-Wave Arcade is easily one of the stronger synth rock albums of the late 1990’s. Song titles like “Casual Sex", “Sex is Personal" and “Worked Up So Sexual" have also led some to label this as The Faint’s “sex album". While sexual themes certainly manifest themselves with lyrics that dance around taboo issues like nun lust and aging strippers, it would be a stretch to think of this album as pornographic. There’s much less erotic charge than in Pulp’s “Different Class", with Blank-Wave’s lyrics dwelling on the coldness and detachment present in everyday human relationships instead of on the heat of sexual passion.
The end result is an album that could be described as indie, synthpop, and goth rock, without dredging behind any of the schlock with which those terms have come to be associated. In retrospect, Blank-Wave is not as strong as The Faint’s following release, 2001’s Danse Macabre, which had the benefit of much stronger guitar work and a more polished overall sound. It’s also unfortunate that some recent bands have tainted synth rock with derivative rehashes of 1980’s electronic hits, and the inevitable backlash to this trend has caused Blank-Wave Arcade to age more poorly than it otherwise would have. However, The Faint was experimenting with this type of sound long before bands like The Killers even existed, and they were doing it in the pop-insulated confines of Omaha, Nebraska to boot.
In the end, perhaps it’s for the better that The Faint have not yet become “the next big thing". Long after mainstream synth rock acts have withered to dust, stellar albums like Blank-Wave Arcade will continue to earn them a place as one of the more stunning bands of the new millennium.
Worked Up So Sexual