When the Omaha synthheads in the Faint moved out of singer-keyboardist Todd Baechle's basement to create their latest album, Wet From Birth, they didn't opt for any pimped-out rehearsal space. Like every good indie-rock lifer, the quintet kept its digs simple.
"We rented a space over a convenience store that sells expired food," Baechle says. "The guy renting it to us, he promised us electricity and plumbing and heat eventually. But when we moved in, it was freezing cold. It was unbelievably cold. We all wore our big coats and gloves and hats while we were starting this record. It warmed up eventually, and we could put carpet down and had a heater-air conditioner put in. So it was eventually really a good environment to write music in.
"There's also a thrift store downstairs. When we first moved in, we turned up all the amps really loud and then went down and shopped down below at this Lutheran thrift store, and it was really loud. So we feel a little bit guilty every time we turn the sub[woofer] on, 'cause we know that they hear everything we're doing."
Disturbing surplus stores isn't the norm for artists affiliated with Saddle Creek, the Faint's Omaha-based label. Best known for releasing the quiet, trembly folk of Bright Eyes and its deer-in-headlights leader, Conor Oberst, Saddle Creek specializes in old-fashioned songwriting and introspective navel-gazing. More important, the label, by design, cherishes friends and family: Members of its bands guest-star on each other's albums with the frequency normally reserved for hip-hop alliances.
"When we finished Wet From Birth, the opinions that mattered were our close friends' here, from Omaha," says bassist Joel Petersen. "The people that we've loosely [been] involved with or just admired for a long time, like [Cursive's] Tim Kasher and Conor and all that. It's something that we are proud of, that we're from an area we feel is a creative center and helps support the arts and what we want to do and what our friends want to do."
Launched 10 years ago with the name Norman Bailer, the group included Oberst; Baechle; Baechle's brother and Faint's current drummer, Clark; and Petersen, and played self-described "lite rock," though "not the cool kind." Oberst eventually departed, and the group dropped its aspirations to become the next Air Supply. What followed was the synth-spasmodic, sex-obsessed 1999 album Blank-Wave Arcade. By the time of 2001's Danse Macabre, the Faint sported caked-on black eyeliner and skinny ties. A pulsating amalgamation of vocoder doom, programmed beats, and keyboard debauchery, the electrogoth disc became an unexpected hit. The band outgrew the small rock clubs that had been its usual hangouts and earned an opening slot on No Doubt's spring 2002 tour.
Released on September 14, Wet From Birth debuted at No. 99 on the Billboard album chart -- the highest ranking of any Saddle Creek release. It finds the group continuing to experiment within the realms of dance, gothpop, and indie rock, although without the doom-shrouded, new-wave sheen of Danse Macabre. The new album, in fact, was originally slated to be a concept disc written around the relatively positive subject of birth; the title itself had been chosen before the first song was recorded.
"Well, there was a little urge to have 'birth' in the title because the last albums, being very roughly dealing with sex and death . . . it seemed fun to have another record that was going to be so ambitious, to take on another huge concept," Baechle says. "Then, after I wrote that song ["Birth"], it didn't seem as interesting to write a whole album like that. It seemed like we needed to make a record that was more about a bunch of different types of things and more of a collage-type attitude towards the music, since I feel like we were trying to rediscover what we were about."
It's tempting to fall back on the clichés that Birth is a musical "rebirth" or "new beginning" for the Faint, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Though it tones down the Discotheque-in-hell soundscapes, Birth still swings like the best Faint booty-shakers. Synths scream in the background like vampire bats on the zombiefied Chemical Brothers throb of "How Could I Forget," while "Erection" squelches and staggers like the robotic undead. Still, classic flourishes underscore these technological tweaks and illustrate the band's evolution. Violin swoons through "Desperate Guys," and "Drop Kick the Punks" resembles a bratty four-on-the-floor punk nugget as interpreted by Blur.
Baechle notes that the genesis for the album title stems from the phrase "wet behind the ears" -- in other words, what "you might call somebody if they're naive and don't really know what things are about. We also thought that fit with the attitude toward this record." Despite the admission, Wet From Birth's lyrics are as straightforward and discernible as they've ever been. For the first time, listeners get a glimpse of the brains behind the grooves, from self-referential talk of makeup application to anthrax attacks to how Baechle misses his fiancée, Orenda Fink, when she tours with Azure Ray. (The dreamy duo also records for Saddle Creek and, not surprisingly, plays a guest role on Wet From Birth.)
So, what exactly does all of Baechle's talk about self-discovery and reevaluation mean? Perhaps it signals that Wet From Birth, despite its sonic progression, is in other ways a sort of regression for the band -- an attempt to recapture the simplicity and anything-goes spirit of its early days. Ironically, maybe the Faint needed to mature in order to perfect its childlike penchant for wide-eyed creativity and boundless experimentation.
"We're not going to purposefully make a record that sounds like what's already popular, because it's not as interesting to us," Baechle says. "We'd like to be a group . . . that writes audio and visual together as one thing. That's probably really general, but I think we'd like to be known as that type of thing, rather than a music group that makes videos or a film group that does soundtracks.
"That's an interest right now. Who knows, maybe that will become boring to us by the time we're getting around to doing it. I can't imagine that, but who knows?"
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