Review: Nate Ruess – Grand Romantic

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Going solo ain’t easy, even if it makes total sense.

As much as we all wanted that new fun. record, it became increasingly clear that we’re as far away from it as ever. If Nate Ruess’ constant pop radio co-writing and guest vocalist adventures weren’t evidence enough, the astonishing success of Jack Antonoff’s indie sensation Bleachers made it all too clear. Fun. may be a cash cow, but there’s currently too much at stake for the individual members’ rising stock.

I’ll admit that I went into Ruess’ solo debut Grand Romantic with a fair amount of skepticism. What does a solo record even look like for an indie rock martyr turned pop star? The picture is blurry at first, but with repeated spins, Grand Romantic turns into a surprisingly delightful, introspective tale.

Built on a foundation of tracks originally meant for that elusive fun. release, and constructed alongside Some Nights producer Jeff Bhasker, Grand Romantic opens with the grand introduction we’d expect, complete with chorus and bells. That display leads directly into “AhHa” – a track so reminiscent of “Some Nights” that it even includes a haunting refrain from the original that spills into the triumphant chorus of, “Oh lord, I feel alive / I’ve gone and saved my soul”.

This hollow glance at the past preceding a triumphant step forward resounds on nearly every level, with Ruess using every inch of his vocal range to power the anthem along. It’s a statement, to be sure, but it’s far from tired. Lead single “Nothing Without Love” follows suit with its hopeful cry, leaving the dark imagery of Some Nights in the rearview mirror.

Before you can label Grand Romantic as the same devil in a new dress, it flips on its head, swaying back and forth between bouncy indie pop and calm piano ballads; joyful noise and painful reflection. Ruess even throws in a few new tricks for good measure, to varying results.

“What This World Is Coming To” is a folk-inspired duet with Beck that is instantly irresistible. Their harmonized chorus of “So let’s get high here in the moonlight / Even the stars go right over our head / I think I’m gonna shine here in the afterlife / Leaving the fight for peace of mind instead” is an instant highlight of 2015. “Moment” is a deep and personal 80s inspired ballad, a sincere glimpse inside a private journal.

On the flip side, “Great Big Storm” has potential as an uplifting, foot stomping track, but falls flat during its repetitive chorus. “Harsh Light” sounds like a Some Nights holdover that doesn’t quite have the same spark. However, to both Ruess and Bhasker’s credit, even songs that fail to fly high don’t sound out of place on Grand Romantic, and the album flows along purposefully.

Even when Ruess takes a dark detour on the painful “It Only Gets Much Worse”, he carries along his sonic sensibilities that keep the track from weighing things down. A tinkling piano and chirping strings carry him even as he sings, “I didn’t mean to let you go / I didn’t mean to bruise but I lost control”. Things come full circle when the album closes with the string-infused and optimistic “Brightside”.

What begins as a familiar friend becomes an animal all its own – Grand Romantic captures Nate Ruess at his most vulnerable, and perhaps his most daring. It may not fill the void left by the disappearance of fun., but Ruess doesn’t seem all that concerned. He shouldn’t be. He and Antonoff have both capitalized on opportunity and appear content to explore new ground while inviting us all along for the ride.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Most Anticipated of 2015: #9 The Return of fun.

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It’s been nearly three years since indie pop act fun. have released any new music. That’s not to say that the trio haven’t been busy – far from it, in fact.

Lead singer Nate Ruess has been a co-writing machine, appearing on tracks from the likes of P!nk and Eminem. Guitarist Jack Antonoff launched his own indie pop side project Bleachers last year, to much acclaim. Along with pianist/percussionist Andrew Dost, the band has still been riding high off of 2012’s smash breakthrough, Some Nights.

So when will the band return from their various endeavors and release new music? Here’s what we know: the band appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last summer to perform a brand new song called “Harsh Lights” and they are currently in the process of writing new material for an unnamed album.

It seems totally plausible that the band will release that album in 2015. Will the new record match the explosive Some Nights, both in musicality and cultural relevancy? Will the band turn once again to acclaimed producer Jeff Bhasker, who helped make Some Nights such a huge sounding record? It’s clear that this trio is loaded with talent and more than capable of crafting something otherworldly. The only question is how long we’ll have to wait.

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Vinyl Spotlight: fun. – Point and Light

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Every so often, our resident vinyl lover, Kiel Hauck, takes the time to talk about a recent vinyl release and gives a breakdown about everything from packaging to sound quality. Here’s his latest installment.

Believe it or not, we’re not quite finished writing about Record Store Day releases. This week, we’re taking a look at a very special release from fun. titled Point and Light. This 10-inch vinyl release features five demo tracks that didn’t make the final cut of the band’s debut album, Aim and Ignite. While this release doesn’t feature any brand new music (although many of the demos were previously unreleased), it was highly sought after on Record Store Day and we were fortunate enough to snag a copy. Let’s take a closer look…

Packaging and Presentation

There’s really no way around it – this release is extremely fun. While this is obviously a cheesy analysis, it’s certainly the truth. The cover artwork was done especially for this release, capturing the three members of the band in a wonderful display of color. The release opens in a gatefold with a large photograph of the band displayed on the inside. Included in the release is a poster, featuring all three members of the band in black-and-white photo form.

The record itself is a joy to look at. Pressed on clear vinyl with a splatter of rainbow color, this 10-inch record fits right in with the packaging and creates a uniform look of bright colors and popping images. If $20 seems like a high price to pay for a 10-inch record of five b-sides, you immediately understand the price tag once the record is opened. In truth, this is probably the best presentation and packaging of any record released for Record Store Day 2014, and is certainly one of my new favorite records from a visual standpoint.

Sound and Quality

It was made clear from the beginning that this was a collection of demos from the band’s first album, so we’re clearly not expecting top-notch production quality from Point and Light. These songs truly sound like leftovers from Aim and Ignite – stripped down, quirky, and a far cry from what the band has produced in the time since. That being said, if you’re a fan of Aim and Ignite or even old material from The Format, the five songs on this record will be quite a delight.

The best two songs on the release come in the form of “Light a Roman Candle With Me” and “The Gambler”. Both are slower, piano driven tracks, the first of which makes wonderful use of harmonies, while the latter features raw, but inspired vocals from Nate Ruess. These tracks feel warm and inviting in vinyl form, making the format of this release very appropriate. While this won’t be a record I spin regularly, it’s a great 20-minute investment when you need a quick indie-pop fix.

This release isn’t for everyone, but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, Point and Light is a wonderful treat for hardcore fans of the band and vinyl enthusiasts who are passionate about time and effort spent to create an excellent visual presentation. I’ve already enjoyed showing this record off to several of my friends who all appreciate the care spent in creating the packaging of this release. If you’re a fan of fun. and are lucky enough to find a leftover copy of this in your local record store – pick it up immediately. You won’t regret it.

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by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.