Music Reviews
Serfs Up!

Fat White Family Serfs Up!

(Domino) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10
Like the Beach Boys' 1971 album, Surf's Up, Fat White Family's latest, Serfs Up!, is tonally inconsistent, occasionally frustrating and has a song featuring feet. But the connections end there. While the Beach Boys had a genius penning songs, it appears Fat White Family didn't hire Brian Wilson to write their tunes, and the songs suffer as a result.
While the songwriting on Serfs Up! is uninspired, Fat White Family can lay down a cool groove. Case in point: album opener Feet—it layers Gregorian chants and string-stabs over a propulsive, night-drive ambiance reminiscent of the Knight Rider and Miami Vice themes, even pushing into the realm of neon-noir. In fact, the entire album will have you laconically bobbing your head, though it must be added that the rhythm section cribs occasionally (from Grandmaster Flash on Fringe Runner to Gary Glitter and T-Rex on Tastes Good with the Money).
However, the rest of the album neither lives up to the hook of the opening track, nor to the promise embedded in each song. While many of these songs initially seduce the listener like nicotine and absinthe, they never lead anywhere meaningful or surprising. A band can groove all they want, but something needs to act as a catalyst within a song to make it truly great. The band, Spoon, comes to mind because, like Fat White Family's output on Serfs Up!, Spoon's songs function as extended grooves, are somewhat repetitive, and live in a world of their own making. However, Spoon carefully constructs an audio wrinkle—usually late in the song—that recontextualizes the work and complicates and beautifies the listener's experience. Fat White Family songs, by comparison, feel like road trips with no destinations. That's not to say that the journey isn't pleasant—the songs just go nowhere, and as a result, aren't memorable or satisfying.
That said, they do go on some interesting journeys. Take the recklessly titled Vagina Dentata, which sounds like a sea of bleeding color and goo with sticky, spacey swaths of cheap synths, a horny sax solo doubling the melody, and even some spritely tinkling on piano. The resulting sound is sleazy cool, not unlike slouch-core boys Mac Demarco and Connan Moccasin. And on Fringe Runner, the song that cribs White Lines, Fat White Family makes playful use of aforementioned string-stabs (you know, those jabs of synth you remember from Songs from the Big Chair and Who Wants to be a Millionaire) to inject some playful irony. Though by this track, which energizes the midpoint of the album, I'd all but given up making sense of the unintelligible lyrics. Another high point is Rock Fishes, which sounds like a dreamy, nostalgic moonlight yacht ride. When I Leave, which takes off with some programmed synths, conjures a surf-sludge highwayman on a sweaty, midnight drive, though none of those impressions were inferred from the lyrics (which seemed to reference...oh hell, who knows).
Speaking of lyrics, Lias Kaci Saoudi's vocals are low and sultry throughout, and often incomprehensible, which might be a good thing. As I tried to transcribe some of the verses from Feet, which are abstract at best, I found them—unless I'm hearing things—possibly problematic: “I hope the children wash up bloated on the shore, Caucasian sashimi in a sand n----r storm.” Maybe context would help, but the other lyrics on Feet did not contribute to a better understanding of the offending metaphor. Then again, maybe Kaci Saoudi—who I've read is half-Algerian—is reclaiming a racist term. On the other hand, at least those lines held up in the imagery department, whereas subsequent lyrics are the verbal equivalent of Microsoft clip art: “Yes, it's going to get ugly, and it's going to get tight. I got a feeling in my gut, and the feeling ain't right.”
The paradox of trying to make “cool” music is that it takes a lot of work, yet should appear effortless. Serfs Up! feels effortless for the wrong reasons—though Fat White Family's sheen of coolness and atmospheric moods almost hides a lack of songcraft, it's best suited as background music.