The As Fast As story begins in earnest sometime in the 70s at the instigation of one-man rock n' roll experience Spencer Albee. A childhood prodigy of sorts, Albee had a way with lawn equipment so it was no surprise when, after spending much of his childhood in juvenile correctional facilities, Albee was approached by billionaire philanthropist Shawn McMulligan with the means to build a time machine. Antics ensued as antics do ensue, but even unlimited time travel gets old after a while and, having broken up the Beatles and damn near ruined John Lennon's marriage too, Albee turned his mind to more constructive projects.
Using elite matchmaking skills apparently derived from the same lawn equipment and an endless supply of old money, Spencer sewed the seeds of musical revolution, ensuring the right people mated with the right people and gave birth (by proxy, obviously) to what would become As Fast As. But as any good chef or winemaker or microwave technician knows, all the best recipes need to be let sit for a while after cooking. So, after a brief decade playing keyboard with college rock favourites Rustic something-or-other, Professor Albee finally assembled his crew in 2002, labeled them Rocktopus and set about not taking over the world.
Things looked rosy for a while; 'Vacations' became a nationwide hit in 2003 and Rocktopus seemed destined for “college rock favourite” status, but it wasn't to be. In a tank swimming with the likes of Creed and Dave Matthews (who resembles a fish for real), there was no room for a big loud rocktopus that didn't look like a fish at all, and the group's popularity remained local. Nobody know why exactly Albee didn't travel forward in time and foresee all of this, but it's probably best not to question a man who can motorise razorblades. Either way, a real turning point came in 2004 when the group dumped the offensive moniker, adopted an open clause and wrote an Open Letter to the Damned
, fiendishly misinterpreted by Octone Records as personal correspondence.
Within months, As Fast As were signed to Octone, home of Maroon 5; Octone claims to have built its reputation on strong live acts and, having witnessed As Fast As in support of Butch Walker last month, it's hard to argue. Lest proof be needed of the strength of a great live show, it took just one show scheduled before Boston popcore dweebs Boys Like Girls for As Fast As to be bumped up to the main support slot. They might just have stolen the show were they opening for anyone else, but for now they can be content with the “best band to come out of Maine since 6gig” award. Yeah, that award sucks.
The live show is intense, equal parts smooth and raunchy- another critic described it as “a rock band playing pop tunes”- and their debut Octone release is no different. There's a remarkable number of influences fluently incorporated in Open Letter
's eleven tracks; they routinely contrast loud power-pop guitar riffs with silky synthesiser tones and Beatlesque harmonies with loose, funky catcalls. If there's a problem, it's that the influences are too clear, yet the way they're brought together is so natural and non-exploitative that it brings to mind the first two Oasis albums- you could almost pick out every melody and its origin, some melodies and riffs are ripped wholesale from other songs, yet the whole can be described as nothing except what it is.
For example, 'Blame It on the Drugs' (mp3 provided free of charge by the good folks at Octone) boldly begins by copping the riff from Elvis Costello's 'Radio Radio' and Albee borrows his nervy vocal delivery for the verse before bursting into a chorus straight out of the stadium rock manual. Foreigner and all those other AM radio staples generically known as Foreigner would be proud. Similarly, 'Gretchen My Captain' is the best cover of 'Old-Fashioned Love Song' ever to make use of ukulele and references to a butch lesbian spaceship captain (Three Dog Dyke don't count) and 'If I Only Knew' could easily pass for a Paul McCartney solo tune, so similar are the two singers' nasal croons, were it not for the loud fart right at the end.
Like Oasis, As Fast As owe a massive debt to the Beatles, specifically the larger-headed one who went on the sprout Wings. Spencer Albee's tone and melodic phrasing owe a great deal to Paul McCartney, and it shows in his songwriting (he has a hand in all eleven songs, and composed seven alone), as well as Stevie Wonder, whose keyboard style also shines through in Albee's playing; guitarist Zach Jones shares similar influences, dropping wah-soaked jams all over the album and taking on both surf-pop vocal harmonies and p-funk inspired shouts in his role as backing vocalist. Bassist Hache (Patrick Hodgkins) co-wrote current single 'Florida Sunshine' (see featured mp3) and takes the occasion to drop the best funky bass line on the album, while drummer Andrew (no relation) Hodgkins' tactful drumming shouldn't be confused with a lack of technical know-how, as his infrequent jazzy freak-outs demonstrate.
Lyrically, Albee's eccentricities stand out still further: 'Special' is a conversation between personal ads, while 'Gretchen My Captain' only really gets interesting when the oxygen begins to run out. His unusual sense of humour puts a whole new spin on the line 'something wicked this way comes' from 'Something Fierce' (originally from the Rocktopus release of the same name); what seems like a straightforward Shakespeare quote suddenly appears far more likely to be a Harry Potter reference. Unfortunately, the flip side of this quirkiness is that tracks like 'Skin the Kat' (also a Rocktopus layover) feel more like a bunch of phrases that have no correlation to each other but sound pretty good. Other tracks suffer from repetitious, or just plain bad, lyrics; such is the case with the chorus of 'Blame It On The Drugs' ('I pray/She's all right/I blame it on the drugs') which wears thin quickly upon repeat playing.
The lyrical shortcomings are rarely an issue, however. Open Letter to the Damned
is one of the most varied pop records you're likely to hear- it may be labeled 'power pop', but it's far more diverse than that implies. 'If I Only Knew' and 'Open Letter to the Damned' show that singer Albee is equally adept at writing slower, more subtle melodies and the fusion of funk guitar and bass with hard rock and pop melodies is far more inventive than that of label mates Maroon 5. Most importantly though, of the eleven songs on the album, at least seven actually sound
like singles- a rarity among pop albums these days, let alone rock. As Fast As are clearly commercially viable, let's hope they follow in the footsteps of other Octone bands and crossover to the mainstream.