By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The difference between a good band and a great one is in the evolution.
Given enough time, any band can write a decent debut fueled only by youthful ambition, piss and vinegar. A good band can then replicate that energy the next time out. A great band is able to keep taking their output someplace new on each subsequent release.
By this definition, Naples, Florida, rockers Fake Problems, who have always been pretty good, have proven themselves an even better band with last year's third full-length release, Real Ghosts Caught on Tape. It's a case of less is more, something they achieved with the help of producer Ted Hutt (Flogging Molly, Gaslight Anthem). Essentially their label's in-house producer, Hutt encouraged the band to focus their ideas and trim the extraneous. Despite (or arguably because of) this, the album sounds very full. Instruments aren't competing with one another, thus allowing the band's strong melodies, clever arrangements and spirited ramshackle energy to shine through.
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"He was our first real producer," says Fake Problems singer and guitarist Chris Farren. "We've had engineers and people who've helped us out sonically before, but he really led us and pushed us to make the songs as good as possible. It's a lot more impressive to make something sound epic and full when you're only using three or four instruments. It's pretty easy to make things sound big when you have a full horn section."
While 2009's It's Great To Be Alive is a fine album, it's all pitched at 11 — the boisterous rhythms, slashing guitars and bevy of instruments guide a bracing folk-punk chassis that includes cowbell, horns and strings. It showcased a lot of range, but the ideas step all over each other, from the prog rock swell at the end of the disco-punk "You're a Serpent, You're a She-Snake" to how the folk-punkabilly "Don't Worry Baby" adopts a dark Bad Seeds air courtesy its horns and attempts a carnival-esque a capella shout-along. It's adventurous but ends up trying too hard. Real Ghosts Caught on Tape shines for the opposite reason.
"The idea of less is more really worked out with the dynamics and subtlety of everything," Farren says. "We had a lot more time to focus on guitar tones and lyrics to get the exact phrasing of things. We just [focused] on these four or five components to really make everything perfect to us."
As a result, Real Ghosts feels almost meditative for all its polish and focus. The lyrics, fittingly, explore issues of identity and life direction. On "Grand Finale" Farren wonders "Where is the rage? Where did all the anger go? How can we take any more indifference?" while catchy New Wave-inflected "Songs for Teenagers" compares God to a "drug dealer that's always holding" and declares "mind over matter is a morphine drip." This crisis of faith is all the more powerful because it's sung and not delivered in the gruff folk-punk-ish growl Farren tended to favor in the past.
"That goes along with the less-is-more idea," Farren explains. "I used to just yell every single line. But when you do that, what's important? It's a lot harder to get your point across when you're extreme all the time."
It's an important lesson for a band that's always had the chops and creativity to be very good, perhaps even great. Now it's just a matter of fulfilling the promise.
"It was honestly a confidence thing," Farren continues. "I was afraid to sing. It's a lot easier to hide behind the growl when you can't hit a note. It's a lot more fulfilling when you can actually hit the note."