Lately, choosing a movie to see in the theater has become a value-based decision. Not in a matinee-price-vs-primetime-price kind of way, but in terms of the viewer’s value system. A number of movies this year have been cash-stormed through a kind of Social Justice Watching scheme, which has served us well in promoting films like Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting among others. And just this past weekend, movie-goers went out to support Crazy Rich Asians to tip off Hollywood Money-Holders that people will actually pay to see Asian-cast movies in significant numbers. [Hollywood, on the other hand, will probably assume we need more movies about the crazy rich. Natch. So get ready for Crazy Rich Caucasians, or as they call it on TV: C-SPAN.]
This kind of bottom-to-the-top style of Progress, interestingly enough, hasn’t really trickled its way down into the music scene yet. Sure, the reviewers out there breathlessly cover the most woke or minority-representative record to drop in any given week, but listeners in the largest numbers would rather just check out what the Rainbow Kid, Tekashi, is up to, which vexes the Forks of this world to no end. R. Kelly, XXXtencion, 6ix9ine… Why is it that the film world rallies around liberal causes and douses those who betray the code in pre-flaming gasoline (like dumping a new Kevin Spacey movie in 11 theaters and having hardly anyone show up anyway), but music seems to reward the outcasts?
I pose the question so that other people can worry about it. Really, this was just a devious trick so I could hop onto this Representation Train in order to pitch The Family Crest. Hey! Frontman, organizer, and vocal tornado, Liam McCormick, is of Asian-descent! If everyone who saw Crazy Rich Asians in order to support diversity this past weekend would buy a copy of The Family Crest’s newest half-opus, The War: Act I, you could help raise Liam’s profile from Crazy Just-Getting-By all the way up to Crazy Probably-Able-To-Afford-A-Place-To-Live!!!
Diversity + Talent = YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO CARE!
McCormick isn’t taking the easy route, like filming a shiny rom-com. His path is one that screams in the face of popular taste, “The hell with you! I’m gonna get orchestral AF, hammer hard on the drama, and call my album ACT ONE!” This is music that sounds purposefully uncool, like your friend who only listens to obscure Broadway soundtracks. That makes it a bit of a tough sell, so, to top it off, the album also sounds furiously expensive. Top notch production, hundreds of players, and just shy of an hour’s runtime, it beggars the mind how a local San Francisco indie act could pay for it. What about rent, guys?! One orchestra = one week’s rent, easily.
But here it is, in all its pristine glories, miraculously complete and flawless in its particular vision. The music feels like it unfurls in an enormous ballroom, resplendent with dimmed chandeliers and elegant tapestries that stir the eye while also offering cloth-ricochet reverb to the splendor of the sound. The first track, “To Love You,” blasts a fireball through the curtain with its overture. The Middle-Eastern tones affect that kind of epicness that must’ve been born with the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack so many years ago; now it’s just kind of a shorthand version of saying “This is… big.” Halfway through the song, the vibe intensifies, and McCormick showcases his rafter-blasting capabilities as his vocals exit the stratosphere into a space once occupied by Jeff Buckley as he repeats “I was born to love you!” in a series of serpentine ululations. A standing ovation, and there’s still eleven tracks to go.
So, The War: Act I, with all its pomp and circumstance, is a narrative about a couple and about love and other fairly pedestrian things, which doesn’t inspire much joy in the story enthusiast. But, when elevated to a supernatural level by these arrangements and performances, McCormick and his enormous (and probably very broke) crew exude the grandeur of the human experience, one composition at a time.
“It Keeps Us Dancing” starts light and brings to mind a less eccentric Decemberists, at least until just after the one minute mark when the swirls of strings illuminate the room. McCormick twitters and coos, choirs fill in the holes in between the string passages, and the entire sound is simply gargantuan but also somehow danceable. Perhaps, for a radio edit version, we’d cut out the waltz breakdown around the 3:40 mark, but the crescendo at the end of this song could easily be the end of any normal album. If the curtains weren’t still aflame from the opener, they would drop here. Can it keep up this kind of a pace?!
If anything from this collection could be considered singles, the theoretical studio heads would be looking at the third and fifth tracks. “Take Tonight” lays on a bass line to pull us into its lively beat. The overall treatment of the instruments fits more in a pop vein here, bobbing and weaving rhythmically, and who among the dancing indie crowds doesn’t want to flow out to a song about a romanti-couple taking the night. Then again, with a chorus like “Take your time, take control / Take your heart, take your soul / Take your love, take your life / Take my hand, take tonight”, there’s a bit of a shadow that falls over the bounciness of its vibe.
The other single option, “Never Gonna Stop,” has a song title and a frenetic energy that would take The Family Crest to Charttown, too. The falsetto choruses bring to mind those heady Temper Trap days of the late oughts, and they soar. This is probably your most straight-forward song, for those who are averse to the crushing ear-weight of a hundred instruments emoting at once.
(For subtlety fans: don’t miss out on the lovely and delicate B-side, “Like a Light” – The only pure ballad on the album. Less whispery than Damien Rice, but just as dulce.)
There are things that I could be mad about. The story begins to get a bit serious with the Latin-tinged “Daggers,” but not so serious that a faux-Theremin solo couldn’t wiggle its way in. “Waiting Still” fires off into the great black yonder with some kind of Space Force riff from a low rent ’80s movie before turning into a real song. “The Years” contrasts plucky violins with melancholy vocals, but it still makes some room for a scat breakdown in there. I could get mad about these things, but the truth is, with all that’s going on in this record, I just can’t be provoked by the types of additions, trespasses that would destroy anyone else’s songs. The Everything And Anything Goes attitude here is contagious, and I’m simply here for it.
By the time the Middle-Eastern theme work of “To Love You” returns in the collection’s final track, “The Rock’s Resting On Your Back,” the adventure through the musical world has come full circle, but the suddenness of the ending reminds you: this is only Act I. How many acts might follow?
I have a feeling any future Acts will depend on how many of you go out this weekend and lay some cash down on their vinyl instead of buying tickets to see, say, The Happytime Murders (to support puppet rights)… For your consideration.
-David C. Casey