Fleming and John
A Melodious MarriageBy Daniel J. Katz
Fleming and John’s The Way We Are opens with a twenty-four second recording of a small child gleefully singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with no particular tempo. From there on, things get creative.
The Way We Are is the second album from the talented (and married) Fleming McWilliams and John Mark Painter. Fleming provides the vocals, her brother Shawn covers the drums, and John plays everything else (and I do mean everything: the album features flugelhorns, accordions, the ramins, chimes, and roughly everything else under the musical sun.) The band is currently reaching a new audience with an opening slot on tour with Ben Folds Five. They make appropriate tourmates since Folds appears on The Way We Are and Fleming and John are heard on both the new Ben Folds Five album and Folds’ inspired, if chaotic, solo album, Fear of Pop.
The Way We Are is, if nothing else, varied. The first thing to get used to is Fleming’s screeching soprano voice. In the beginning it seems a little shrill (especially in the second track, a reckless rock song called “I’m So Small”) but once you get accustomed to it it sounds more like Bjork covering Veruca Salt in a charming way. Stylistically, the album teeters wildly, stretching from trippy Morcheeba-like ballads (“Rain All Day”) to rolling country rock (“That’s All I Know”) and from space-age disco (“Sad Sadder Day”) to tongue-in-cheek lounge (“Ugly Girl,” co-written by Folds.) Most songs use bells or horns, creating a unique sound that seems odd on the first listen, but which become more cohesive as the songs continue.
Your liking of many of the songs may depend on your mood, but there are a few noticeable standouts. One of those is the album’s first single, “The Pearl,” with its use of a creepy but catchy chorus with verses that become gradually more frantic as the lyrics become more frustrated (“...it possesses me, controls me, it makes me run, it makes me kill.”). “Sad Sadder Day” is driven by a thumping disco beat and Framptonesque synthesized backup vocals. “Comfortable” is perhaps the best potential single, a guitar ballad about becoming accustomed to a relationship, which eventually becomes accentuated by uninvited power chords. But perhaps the most striking moment on the album comes in the title track, as a gentle love-themed melody suddenly gives way to a few quick guitar strums followed by a panicky chorus pleading for safe passage through “shark infested waters.”
The Way We Are is eclectic without becoming burdensome and entertaining without being shallow. The versatility shown on this album (and in the band’s live shows) suggests that this is a band that should be getting far more attention than they currently do. The sixteenth song on the album (subtly labeled on the tracklist as “The Hidden Track”) is a more jazzy interpretation of “I’m So Small,” giving Fleming another chance to croon that wearing wigs is “all part of [her] plot to prove [she’s] not a dot.” Here’s hoping that this is a band that doesn’t stay small much longer.