Graded on a Curve:
Fawn Spots,
From Safer Place

Anybody who has ever blasted Mission of Burma while wearing a Hüsker Dü t-shirt as they gazed upon a picture of Ian Curtis tacked to their dorm-room wall should consider looking into From Safer Place, the full-length debut by Fawn Spots. Combining post-punk and post-hardcore with restless, highly literate lyrics is far from new, but as the LP’s ten selections blaze forth, the tightly-wound racket served up by this York UK trio does increase in effectiveness. It’s out now on the Critical Heights label.

Fawn Spots reportedly began as a duo, the goal in 2011 to push the limits of noise-production as derived from a two-piece. Hints of those hammer-down beginnings can be observed in the group’s current approach, but the origin story is perhaps more detectable today via their unconventional two guitar and drums configuration, a bass-less circumstance that seems to have evolved from happenstance rather than by design.

Jonathan Meager and Oliver Grabowski provide the vocals and wield the guitars, while new arrival Paddy Carley is the drummer, the outfit’s second. Regardless of the lack of power trio-esque bottom-end that a four-string reliably supplies, Fawn Spots are still easily pegged as a rock proposition, though more defined by velocity than by ass-pinning heaviness.

Musically, at least; to elaborate, main songwriter Meager openly draws inspiration from the Modernist poetics of T.S. Eliot and the writings of Existentialist cornerstone Jean-Paul Sartre, factors that help to illuminate Fawn Spots as extending a mid/late-‘80s phenomenon where the forcefulness of hardcore nuzzled-up with unabashed thought-gush.

Meager also cites ideas expressed by the Situationist movement and Guy Debord, specifically the imperative to live without dead time, as relevant to Fawn Spots’ group concept; this is definitely a weightier scenario than what’s found in the lyricisms of your garden variety weekend bar-bangers, but it’s not leaden, and the influence of the whole Situationist shebang raises the Lipstick Traces-angle quite nicely; this in turn intertwines well with the stated impact of Joy Division.

A fair accusation of being hyper-literate and overly earnest could be leveled against Meager and Fawn Spots, but minus a lyric sheet it’s frankly hard for me to notice; at this stage they don’t privilege words over music, and From Safer Place’s strengths come into sharpest focus as the quick, lean effort nears conclusion, almost as if they’re figuring it out as they go along.

This quality of instantaneous learning isn’t borne out by reality however, since Fawn Spots’ discography holds a CD EP, a pair of split singles, and a 7-inch all to their lonesome. From Safer Place’s larger canvas will surely expand their listenership, and seemingly cognizant of this fact “New Sense” explodes out of the gate, the high-speed precision bringing to mind Hüsker Dü and even more so the dynamic opening of Rites of Spring’s eponymous LP.

But the trio’s handle on dexterity shines through in the pace-shifting instrumental passages; Fawn Spots’ form moves are adept enough that if some trickster played “New Sense” for me and then claimed it was from an unreleased demo cut circa-’87 for the Touch and Go, Homestead, or even Dischord labels, I’d very likely be bamboozled.

This shouldn’t necessarily infer a high level of value, though obviously buffs of u-ground rock from the second half of the ‘80s will more probably glean ample mileage out of Fawn Spots’ motor, particularly if they’re not averse to the seriousness on display. And given the Prufrockian sentiment of its title, the singing on “I’m Not a Man: I Never Will Be” is appropriately low in the mix (the disc was self-recorded and engineered), a maneuver that results in the track sounding distant overall.

It also speeds by, barely eclipsing a minute. Contrasting are the initial moments of “A Certain Pleasure,” its atmosphere more immediate, and while a melodic redirection widens the range, this discursion is momentary, basically serving as a platform for an instrumental re-launch. Fawn Spots don’t telegraph their intentions, but if breakneck and restless they fall short of the wheels-flying-off recklessness that makes early Dü and the abovementioned Rites of Spring LP such enduringly thrilling experiences.

I don’t want to suggest From Safer Place wants for energy and momentum, though “Black Water” (which by now really should be blatantly clear isn’t a cover of the Doobie Brothers) presents a multi-tiered landscape, its alternating tempos butting a rapid gallop up against sharp angled detours, one featuring a riffy buildup as the timbre of voice switches from a gruff bark to unflustered calm. The surroundings steadily gather muscularity before recalibrating and spitting out a succinct denouement.

All this in just a tad over three minutes; it’s a solid hunk of work, but I’ll confess to being more struck by “Natural Vision,” which benefits from a general straight-line progression as the hyperactive nature of the formative Dü material gets blended with stabs at songsmanship reminiscent of Mission of Burma’s Ace of Hearts stuff.

For many ‘80s bands, Burma functioned as a liberating doorway out of the formal rigidity of hardcore. The same goes for assorted post-punk acts, though Fawn Spots’ jones for Joy Div is more absorbed than consciously heard in part due to the absence of bass guitar. And yet impressive is how the lack of the axe doesn’t register as a weakness, the title track continuing in the vein of “Natural Vision,” the setting once again extremely Dü but with a heavier shade of ‘80s DC-centric post-HC melodicism folded into the mix.

It’s here that Fawn Spots grease their bearings and go for broke. After one brief respite, “Remains” barrels forward to a roaring, anthemic finale. It’s the album’s standout, and it leads us to “In Front of the Chestnut Tree,” a sturdy instrumental bringing down the fervor considerably, its guitars working well in tandem as the intensity gradually rises but never breaks loose.

The temporary avoidance of uttered syllables underscores Fawn Spots as unburdened by lyrical/ideological objectives, and from there “Recurring Face” kicks up a strong commotion, guitar aggressively needling/gnawing; this time the vocalists team up. The stage is set for closer “Basque Knife,” which does falter slightly; as From Safer Place’s longest track (though it’s only a little over four minutes) it mostly avoids shifting gears, instead mining a mid-tempo repetition that lingers for just a smidge too long.

The cut does highlight Carley at the kit, and as things progress the guitars get worked-up into a pretty heavy lather, so the situation is far from barren. Ultimately, “Basque Knife” assists in shaping From Safer Place as an uneven experience with much potential; as a long-playing debut it’s not an unusual condition, especially for a record stemming from this combination of influences. They’ve got the power, acumen, and enthusiasm, now all that’s needed is the risk/danger produced by throwing an unforeseen variable into the equation.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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