Wednesday, November 29, 2017

album review: 'attention seeker' by felix hagan & the family

Okay, I've talked earlier this year about acts embracing certain gothic or theatrical elements in music - which has happened a surprising amount in 2017 - and obviously there's a sliding scale for this. On the one hand, you have artists like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats looking for a nuanced and sincere discussion of gothic music, and on the other hand you get acts like many of the Soundcloud shock rappers and Hollywood Undead who grab up the superficial scare tactics to make themselves seem more edgy, imposing and interesting than they really are. And somewhere in the middle you get an act like Creeper, a pop rock band drawing on the baroque, pseudo-gothic melodrama of bands like Panic! At The Disco, that play with all of the intensity and sincerity but are willing to also have a little more fun with the trappings and image - there's a limit to how seriously you can really take them, and that can be just fine.

So into all of that comes Felix Hagan & The Family, a London rock group who in the grand tradition of camp draws upon pop rock, hair metal, vaudeville and musical theater for their sound - not quite as bombastic or epic as Meat Loaf, not quite as textured as Kyle Craft, but playing in a similar ballpark. They've been around throughout most of the 2010s putting out EPs that range from remarkably catchy to a little too ridiculous for their own good - all the theatricality is fun but it does strain credulity when they try to call anyone 'posers' - but there's a part of me that has a soft spot for this material, so when the votes came up on Patreon for me to cover this... well, it's near the end of the year, there aren't many new releases coming this week that I care about, so why the hell not? So I dug into Attention Seeker - what did I find here?

Here's the thing: Felix Hagan & The Family fall into a weird niche, which makes a record like Attention Seeker a little hard to quantify. Of course the Meat Loaf comparison is an obvious one, but there's also a level of self-aware, straightforward gusto that reminds me of acts like Kirin J. Callinan and Alex Cameron - and for those of you wondering, yes, that latter review will come before the end of the year, you can be sure of it. But at the same time it's not a completely stylistic throwback like elements of their work is, with choices oddly reminiscent of modern musical theater and the sort of small scale retro camp that'll never play to a larger audience, but can win a cult following regardless. And while a project like this is definitely flawed, it's a solid enough introduction that I think you'd otherwise enjoy.

And where we need to start is with Felix Hagan himself - and on some level, he's a tough character to crack. I wouldn't put him up there with the glorious fountains of charisma and personality in this vein like Kirin J. Callinan or Kyle Craft - he's got more of a jittery, strutting style that plays closer to Brendon Urie or any number of vaudeville fast talkers - but he's got the range and expressive presence to belt, and he plays off his backing female singers pretty damn effectively on songs like the old school rock of 'Hey I Want You' or the spiky new wave grind of 'Delirium Tremendous', if even if it's hard not to notice the more synthetic layers that are added on songs like 'Be A Freak'. But we might as well get this issue out of the way now: for a record that's clearly aiming for the sort of niche audience who'll accept the balance between campy theatricality and retro glam, you would expect a little more texture and bite to come through in the production, something a little more ramshackle and gritty or eclectic - you've already got them in the door, you won't alienate them by getting weirder! Instead, throughout the majority of these tunes we get an influx of nervy, synth-driven grooves that aren't just very modern, but often feel driven from a half dozen different eras and styles, from the faint burbles and cascades within the punk-inspired title track and 'On The Double' - the latter of which has a instrumental breakdown I could swear was exceedingly close to Muse's 'Knights Of Cydonia' - to the hollowed gallop of 'The World's Yours', from the disco and borderline g-funk tones behind the hook of 'Babe I Ain't Comin' to the spacey touches around 'Be A Freak' that sound like they could have been pulled from six years ago! And that's not even getting into tracks like 'Burn Down The City', which with the rumbling atmosphere and layered backing vocals could have been a Hozier song - but I will say for that it's one of the better ones here, because it at least picks up more body and depth and texture. And that is an issue for this record: for as much as I dig the old school glam and new wave grooves and compositions - the band cites ABBA as an inspiration and I definitely believe it - it's hard not to notice how some of the mixes feel pretty thin, with punchy grooves and solid, shredding leads in the guitars and keyboards, but never quite the depth to make the hooks stick harder, and that can be a problem on songs like the squonky 'Woah There Kimmy' where I'm already not a fan of the jerky minor keys on the hook. Thankfully, there are moments where it all comes together - 'Gene Kelly' could be a vintage Meat Loaf song with an even tighter groove, 'Fall Away' is the sort of smoky power ballad with some really tasteful layering, and the acoustic-driven 'Tough To Be A Dreamer' is a fantastic closing track - I just wish there were more of those moments.

Of course, a big part of all of this ties back to the writing - and let me give Felix Hagan some praise right out of the gate here, because in terms of lyrical meter and flow this is a damn catchy set of songs that pack the lines with detail without ever feeling clumsy or overwritten, loaded with plenty of witty turns of phrase that roll off the tongue remarkably well. And for even more points, I'm a big fan of the framing and presentation of much of this content - because let's be honest, this style can slip towards silliness and self-parody very quickly - and thus the line between self-aware wit and impassioned firepower is pretty narrow, especially when you realize our album's protagonist is embracing his inner glam rock idol: hungry for sex and success, playing with big, flashy emotions, but at the same time constantly demanding the validation of the audience for all of it. And thus it helps a lot that the framing is established right from the opening title track: it wants to rope the audience into the desperate story, but it is just self-aware enough to show how our frontman might be using said stage character to mask inner insecurities and chase a dream that there might be little chance of attaining. It's the same desperate intensity that informs songs like 'Gene Kelly' as he's fully aware of how much he pulls upon rock gods of the past to resurrect his image, or the over-the-top glitz of 'Hey I Want You' or the melodramatic proclamations of 'Burn Down This City' - sure, it can be ridiculous, but if he can suck you into the veneer for just a few seconds, it can connect. But this can bite both ways, mostly when it either slides towards the silly like the recoiling from his own lust on 'Woah There Kimmy' or the simple double entendre that drives 'Babe I Ain't Comin', or when it pivots to the overly sentimental like on 'The World's Yours' and 'Be A Freak', empowerment anthems just with more fantastical imagery. In contrast, what cut deeper for me is when the slices of reality became a little more pronounced in contrast, like the imagined encounter with an old friend long gone on 'Fall Away', and especially the closer 'Tough To Be A Dreamer', which makes it abundantly clear that our protagonist knows his limited audience and likelihood of failure, almost nihilistic in the hook in its bleak expectations... but screw it, he's going to find something he loves and make it pay for him, there's no point in wallowing in angst. It's smart enough to see reality, but earnest enough to shoot for it anyway - damn near perfect for this style and sound, great way to end the record, especially as the locus of happiness for our attention seeker shifts from external to internal, showing real growth.

So yeah, despite production issues and a few songs that slide a little too close to kitsch, I dug most of this album. Granted, part of this is that I'm a sucker for smart, well-constructed writing, a potent frontman, and this sort of self-aware theatricality that takes itself seriously, but if you can key into the right mindset, I think you'll find a lot to like. As such, for me it's getting a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a musical theater fan or you like acts like The Darkness or Meat Loaf or Kirin J. Callinan or Alex Cameron. It's wild, it's melodramatic and it can frequently reach the heights of ridiculous - but it's also infectious, self-aware, and pretty damn smart to boot. You'll want to hear this folks, definitely check it out.

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