Wednesday, April 10, 2019

For Against - Aperture (1993), Mason's Califiornia Lunchroom (1995), Shelf Life (1997) - 2018 reissues on Saint. Marie - a brief overview.

How can I legitimately call this a 'review' when I'm entirely partial to the subject I'm talking about?  For arguments sake let's call this a write-up - and a tardy one at that seeing that these reissues have been available for almost half a year already.  Lincoln, NE's For Against have been a monumental favorite of mine, and IMO stand as one of the most essential late-twentieth century trios alongside The Police and Husker Du.  However for the three-piece this entry concerns, their lineup was remarkably fluid by comparison.  Frequently lauded in small circles For Against's first two LPs, Echelons (1987) and December (1988) were the product of frontman/bassist Jeff Runnings, guitar wielder Harry Dingman III, and drummer Greg Hill.  Groomed on the likes of Joy Division, early Cure and myriad 4AD and Rough Trade imports, the initial F/A template was marked with a chilly, insular demeanor and an omnipresent post-punk wail, not to mention an air of cool so dense the sharpest Ginsu knife in the world wouldn't breach it.  Yet these austere sonic environs were surprisingly approachable thanks to Runnings melodic vocal aplomb, countering Dingman's slicing, echoing chords and Hill's snare-heavy backbeat.  Even on a collection of nascent demos (corralled on a 10" record, In the Marshes) For Against's formula was deliriously intoxicating and advanced...not to mention a curious one at that given their deep-red state locale of Nebraska where they must have stuck out conspicuously.

The '90s saw the departure of Dingman and Hill for other endeavors, but thankfully, a revamped incarnation of For Against materialized, and from a creative standpoint thrived exponentially.  Runnings not only retained his singer status but abandoned bass for a six string.  And instead of bringing aboard a full time bassist he opted for a new lead guitarist in the guise of Steven Hinrichs, whose former jangle pop contingent, the Gladstones I've featured previously on this site.  So, no bassist it was for F/A mach II, but new drummer Paul Engalhard filled in Greg Hill's stead capably. The renovated trio arrived with a new album, Aperture, and a veritably different modus operandi to accompany it.  1991's Aperture alongside it's Clinton-era follow-ups, Mason's California Lunchroom and Shelf Life have been lovingly reissued as a lavish vinyl box set on Saint Marie Records.  They're also available separately on wax and CD, and even a modest CD bundle.

The new and arguably improved For Against bore plenty of resemblances to the template Runnings established in the 1980s.  But the new lineup brought some attendant and demonstrable developments.  First and foremost the stilted and often rigid demeanor that prevailed on Echelons and December had been relaxed considerably by the time Aperture was rolled out.  Thematically, F/A were still mightily downcast, but an empathetic steak was emerging, and the abstract and existentialist concerns of before were diminished in favor of romantic 'grievances,' for lack of a better word.  You see, despite Aperture's malcontent-driven agenda, the band's sonic motifs, including Runnings' unflappably chill parlance are enough to make you oblivious to all the inherent tension.  No assailing shards of power chords this time around, rather ethereal, chiming leads akin to the Cocteau Twins (sans the extraneous dream-pop gauze).  This album is a utopian merger of progressive, forward-thinking indie pop with an irresistibly palatable exterior.  Nonetheless, Aperture is still one bitter mofo of a record, with sentiments like "Do you think the worst of me, I'm thinking the worst of you" (from "Don't Do Any Favors") exuding a healthy dose of righteously indignant schadenfreude.  Perhaps not the epitome of For Against, standout cuts like "You Only Love Twice" and "Nightmare Life" just might make you opine that Aperture is just that.

Whether you're a casual For Against-er or are devoutly For Against (like moi), it would be hard to argue that the afore-critiqued Aperture and it's two subsequent follow-ups, Mason's California Lunch Room and Shelf Life weren't trimmed from the same sackcloth. Not only were all three constructed by the same lineup (Runnings/Hinrichs/Engalhard) they shared a very similar aesthetic.  In fact, the most accurate way of differentiating this trio of albums is by their gradations of melancholy.  Thoroughly oblivious to the seismic grunge/alt rock reverberations of the era, F/A's 1995 entry, Mason's... curtails Aperture's cathartic tensions ever so mildly. Hinrich's unremittingly clangy guitar fills woo with sweet jangly persuasion, plied with Runnings sharp melodic chops, which seem to heighten with every successive F/A record.  "Seesick," "Tagalong" and "Coursing" swell with ambivalent to downright regretful themes, but amidst these forlorn ruminations resides a musical formula so absorbing and heady, that any overarching pessimism invariably stops short of overpowering the songs themselves.

'97's Shelf Life caps this near-perfect trifecta, and while it thankfully does little to alter the band's established formula there's at least a modicum of yin and yang at play.  "Lost" offers such quintessential one-liners as, "Doing what I do best/going nowhere," fully in keeping with F/A's downer ethos.  And while that tune has plenty of company on Shelf Life, it's countered by the comparatively buoyant and dare I say optimistic opener "Shadow." What's more, the band covers their then-contemporaries East River Pipe's downright sprite "Times Square Go-Go Boy," making for a refreshing change of pace.  Virtually anywhere the needle lands here yields a hook-fest that's impossible to dodge.  Yes, you can say that about virtually hundreds of For Against's peers (past or present) but this remarkably consistent and gratifying marvel from the Cornhusker state bore an indigenous stripe so vibrant these records haven't lost an iota of their potency or relevancy in the ensuing decades.

As mentioned all three titles are available separately or as a vinyl box set/CD bundle straight from Saint Marie Records.  Digital options are available at your fingertips via Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.

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