If life has taught me anything in my 22 short years, it is that you don’t always get exactly what you want. The same goes for concerts.
Saturday night’s Fictionist and NightNight show at Velour provided a microcosm of two bands at very different points in their musical evolution, one bursting with new creative life and the other struggling against their own self-imposed limitations.
NightNight, the night’s opening act, is the real deal. Featuring an all-star lineup of Provo talent (including McKay Stevens of the Vibrant Sound, Scott Shepard of Book on Tapeworm and Nate Pyfer of Code Hero), the trio’s mellow blend of introspective guitar-based pop tinged with electronica is heavily indebted to Ben Gibbard’s work with the Postal Service — and not just because Shepard’s ethereal vocals are eerily reminiscent of the Death Cab for Cutie frontman.
While NightNight’s performance was by no means perfect (after all, it was the band’s first show with their current lineup), there was a sense of excitement and adventure watching the players feel each other (and the songs) out on-stage, making the occasional mistake feel more like a badge of honor than a scar. This was a band that felt like they were taking risks and laying pieces of themselves — flawed though they might have been at times — bare for the audience to see.
Shepard and Pyfer’s harmonies wove together in a subtle yet effective vocal confession, underscored by the occasional skittering electronic beat and washed in a wave of synthesizers and atmospheric guitars tones. While the songs and their arrangements were undeniably simple and understated, they were both effective and affecting. By the time they closed the set with the excellent one-two punch of “Virginia Is For Lovers” and “Maslo’s Heirarchy,” it was apparent that NightNight has the potential to be more than just a whimsical side-project. Sure, there are kinks to be ironed out and the band definitely has room to grow artistically, but the foundation for a new major player in the Provo scene has been laid. It will be interesting to see where Stevens, Shepard and Pyfer take NightNight from here.
Fictionist, the show’s headliners, have become something of local legends in these parts of late. Having sprouted from the popular Good Morning Maxfield a few years back, the group has inspired near-hero worship from a very specific segment of the Provo population. I am not part of that segment.
For a band with so much local acclaim, Fictionist has never struck me as particularly awesome — or, more accurately, as awesome as everyone else considers them to be. Prior to Saturday evening, I had only seen them perform live once and that was a record store performance, which was less than flattering. In an endeavor to be fair and open-minded and to understand the hype, I decided to give them another shot in a proper venue, but came away only moderately more impressed.
Something deserves to be said up front: Fictionist are undoubtedly a very good band. Their musicianship is flawless, their live performances tight and their technical skills unrivaled in the Provo scene. However, I can’t help feeling like their songs suffer at the hands of their musical expertise.
Fictionist doesn’t lack ambition; if anything, their constant attempts to be different, unique and genre-less are what constricts their actual growth potential. It seems that most every song in their back catalog follows the same formula: slow-build to an epic finish, with no discernible song structure and heaps of guitar gimmicks to provide that “experimental” edge they so obviously seek. (“Oh look, they’re making bird noises with their guitars! Oh, now they’re playing them with a cello bow!” You get the idea.) In their attempts to defy formula and structure, they have become the epitome of both.
While all of these various musical pieces are fine in and of themselves, it seems Fictionist’s desire to use all of them at the same time often overpowers any actual songwriting that might be present and causes the band to feel more like a rather generic jam band than the truly progressive group they aspire to be. In short, they’ve become the Provo version of Phish. Now, Phish is a wildly popular band with a legion of hyper-passionate fans who love their endless guitar noodling and tendency to completely eschew structure to the point of cliche. If this is what Fictionist desire, then they have achieved their goal on a local level. If they are reaching for more nuanced creative heights, then there is still a ways to go.
The band did give promising signs on Saturday evening, particularly in the new songs off their yet-to-be-recorded next album. Less rambling and more controlled than your usual Fictionist fare, songs like “Burn Bright” (featuring a phenomenal slide guitar line) came off sounding more like the driven Southern rock of Kings of Leon than another sprawling six-minute opus. (I kept expecting lead vocalist Stuart Maxfield to start crooning about sex being on fire; unfortunately, it never happened.) While not all of the new creations came off smelling like roses, many showed increased musical discipline and a real dedication to songwriting craft over jam band aesthetics. For those who care about Fictionist’s potential and artistic evolution as a band, this is a very good sign.
Saturday evening was a tale of two bands — one taking its tenuous and uncertain first steps into a promising creative future, and another attempting to reconcile its successful yet unfulfilled past with a more focused, artistically disciplined new direction. Whether or not either group consciously realizes it, these things are happening and it will be most interesting for Provo music fans to experience the results.
Steve Pierce is editor and co-founder of Rhombus. He is not a fan of Phish.
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