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My Best Fiend

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Listen to Higher Palms

My Best Fiend
Warp Records

While the five members of My Best Fiend live in Brooklyn, the music they create resides somewhere else entirely: in a spacious, dreamlike world all its own, by turns unsettling and uplifting. On their Warp Records debut, In Ghostlike Fading, their songs feel like reveries, mixing gorgeously atmospheric keyboards with grittier guitars and plaintive lead vocals. Almost hushed, folk-like verses build to ringing rock choruses, bolstered by layers of floaty vocal harmonies from various friends and guest stars, all of it treated to a generous turn of the reverb knob. On hallucinatory opening track, “Higher Palms,” My Best Fiend achieves a kind of modern, Phil Spector-like spirit, a somewhat woozier Wall of Sound. Lead singer Frederick Coldwell’s lyrics teeter between decadence and penitence, compulsion and confession, offering portraits of characters that have sweated through a long dark night of the soul or two and –for the most of them – lived to tell the tale.

My Best Fiend borrows its name from a 1999 documentary that filmmaker Werner Herzog made about his friend, collaborator and occasional nemesis, the late actor Klaus Kinski. It’s a loaded phrase, suggestive of the tightrope balance of emotions, the love and lunacy, required in both art and life – and, besides, it sounds pretty damn cool. The group originated as a duo, with Kris Lindblade, a Kansas native, on Rhodes piano and Coldwell, who hails from Philadelphia, on guitar and voice. From the start, Lindblade notes, they debated the idea of the organic vs. the electronic insofar as their own set-up. That question basically answered itself as they annexed new members, starting with drummer Joseph Noll. They ultimately grew to a be a five-piece band with the addition of keyboardist Paul Jenkins and, most recently, bassist Damian Genuardi, a childhood buddy of Coldwell’s and a veteran of hardcore band The Explosion.

Though Coldwell supplies the lyrics, the evocative approach of My Best Fiend is the result of a genuine group effort. The material first took shape in the band’s Bushwick rehearsal space, which they carefully maintain so that the physical aura of the room seeps into the ambience of their songs. But more than the setting, it’s the close and constant interaction of the players that dictates the sound. As newest member Genuardi says, “We really achieved the atmosphere of the record by listening to each other. I came from a punk-rock band and I learned from working with these guys that when not to play is almost more effective than filling up the bar with notes. Most of the album was recorded live and, while we were doing it, we were very conscious of listening to each other and minding the space in between.”

My Best Fiend cut tracks for In Ghostlike Fading at Vacation Island in Williamsburg with co-producer, engineer and studio owner Matt Boynton (Gang Gang Dance, MGMT, Beirut), another old friend who helped the band produce the three-song EP, Jesus Christ that preceded its Warp signing. Says Lindblade, “We kind of kept it in the family. Some of the people we brought in for vocals, for example, were artists we’d played shows with or gone to see.” Among them were the formidable Shannon Funchess of Light Asylum, who sings on “ODVIP” and “Cracking Eggs,” and highly regarded solo artist-violist Anni Rossi. The initial tracking moved quickly, then the quintet focused for considerable time on overdubs, adding and subtracting layers, and often happily discovering that, as Lindblade put it, “the bones of the record, the atmosphere and the vibe, came from our initial tracking experience.”

“It was intense making this record,” Coldwell recalls. “It was an emotional time for everyone involved. The process of trying to articulate something that is so complex and important to you in a clear way, from getting the tempo right to finding the perfect aural palette, was pretty heavy.” But, along with its more brooding passages, In Ghostlike Fading has a bracing sense of defiance, an appealing insolence, present from the very first chorus of opening track “Higher Palms.”

My Best Fiend’s hypnotic melodies has garnered comparisons to Spirtualized, and the enveloping wall of sound of Jesus and Mary Chain, even hinting at the sonic build and climax of Explosions in the Sky. But Coldwell, who can talk as knowledgably about sixties cult folkie Fred Neil as contemporary electronic composer Bernhard Fleischmann, reaches back even further, citing as “a big touchstone” Neil Young’s haunting, bare-bones 1974 disc On The Beach, a bleary-eyed discourse on the downside of fame and the collapse of the California dream.

In Ghostlike Fading has a loose, impressionistic narrative flow – an undercurrent, really – that develops over the course of its nine songs, culminating in the seven-minute-plus final track, “On the Shores of the Infinite,” where one can finally, absolutely, glimpse some light at the end of the tunnel. The album wasn’t conceived in that structured sort of manner, but, Coldwell admits, “Sometimes things reveal themselves late into the process, and when I listen to it now, it does very much feel that way. It’s definitely a very linear thing, a passage.”

Faith – or, more to the point, faithlessness – is a recurring theme on the disc, perhaps most explicitly on “I’m Not Going Anywhere.” On the other hand, “Jesus Christ” is more like a junkie’s lament, with “ODVIP” serving as its cautionary epilogue. Coldwell admits, “I was kind of surprised myself, and I still am, about how saturated the record is with religious themes. It was a big part of my upbringing and I guess, in my lyrics, I used it as a touchstone for a variety of concepts and feelings. Those internal struggles are best articulated, for me at least, through religious concepts because that’s where I first encountered them. I was raised as a Catholic and my mom had been a nun for ten years, then she left the church, for a lot of reasons. She has a strong concept of faith but also is very, very suspicious of religious institutions, and that’s how she raised my brothers and me. I struggle with my beliefs, they’re conflicted at best, and that’s a lot of what I was trying to express on the album.”

Integrated into the framework of In Ghostlike Fading, highly personal words become utterly universal sentiments. As Coldwell concludes, “It’s a kindred spirit vibe, a way of not feeling so alone, of keeping some of your ghosts alive.”

Michael Hill

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