Friday, July 30, 2010

Fort Wilson Riot's lovely new album

I've blogged the Minneapolis-based band Fort Wilson Riot a couple times before -- first in the series "Let me tell you about the awesome musicians I know" (as I said in that post, I got started playing music in a band with Jacob Mullis of FWR) and then in the top 100 songs of the past decade.

Since then, the band's personnel has gotten whittled down. It used to have 4 or 5 members, and now they're down to two: my friend Jacob and his girlfriend, Amy Hager. And they're embarking on an adventure: they recently quit their day jobs and are going to be literally living out of their touring van, playing shows to promote their new album, Predator/Prey.

I've been listening to an advance copy, but the album will be officially released tomorrow was released on July 31. You can order a physical copy or a digital download here. (You might also want to jump to the bottom of this post for a couple free mp3s.)

Here's an article on the band's new phase:

Formerly a baroque, minor-key rock unit with a penchant for bombast, the slimmed-down Fort Wilson Riot that returns this month with Predator/Prey is a sly and seductive pop-leaning twosome. . . .

Beginning life as wistful pop-folk practitioners on album opener "Forgotten Language," they shift their sound effortlessly over subsequent tracks, tapping into their Blondie-copping inner disco-rock divas on irresistibly slinky single "All My Friends" and bringing the album to a close while striking their finest garage-rock pose on "Lead Me On."

Repeated listens to Predator/Prey reveal the album to be both exhilarating and slightly jarring in its idiosyncrasies. The transition from a Mullis-sung slice of laid-back pop like "Gold-Flecked Morning" into Hager's lush, high-drama ballad "Heira" isn't exactly seamless, but the end result is a true original.
I agree with most of that, but not the part about how the "idiosyncrasies" (though there are many) and are "jarring." That block quote does give a pretty good description of how the album sounds, but one thing it leaves out is the extraordinary interplay of the two voices. Based on reading the author's description, you'd think Jacob sings one song, and then Amy sings another that's drastically different and has nothing to do with Jacob's. Actually, Amy's song is only slightly slower and more dramatic than Jacob's. But here's what really makes their songs work well when paired together: just as Amy joins Jacob in sumptuous harmony halfway through his song, Jacob does the same thing for Amy in hers.

And when I say the vocal interplay is "extraordinary," I mean that literally: it's out of the ordinary. I'm hard-pressed to think of many musical acts with a male and female singer who are strong both on their own and in harmony. I can think of bands led by a male singer where a female band member regularly sings backup and occasionally sings lead (the Arcade Fire), or vice versa (Rilo Kiley) . . . and not surprisingly, the secondary singer is not as good at leading the band. Fort Wilson Riot is the rare band where both the woman and man can do a convincing lead performance and some nice '60s-style harmonies to back up the other one. (The latter has unfortunately been a dying art form in the music of the past 20 years.)

The song-writing has an essential simplicity -- straightforward chord progressions, vocal melodies that are easy to sing along to. But the simple structure is filled in with complexity in the details: every song seems to have a clarinet or cello or music box or piano sneaking into the mix at unexpected moments. It's the kind of album with which a band risks being called overly ambitious, but everything is done with such an intuitive touch that it all comes together into an exquisite little masterpiece.

I am, of course, biased in favor of my friend and former bandmate's music. But I recommend giving it a few listens. You can download mp3s of the first two songs on the album for free here: "Forgotten Language" and "All My Friends" (via their website). And here they are playing "Snakes and Scorpions" live:

(Photo by Staciaann Photography, from Fort Wilson Riot's MySpace.)


jamie said...

If you're a Fort Wilson Riot fan, you should check out this brand new video of them performing "Love Song for Mabee Burlingham (Pieces of the War Pt. 1)" live at the 1419 space for MPLS.TV's weekly live performance series, "City of Music."

You can check it out at or on

John Althouse Cohen said...

That video's great -- thanks! I'll do a new post for it and cross-reference it here.