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Eyes in the Water by Fine China (Review)

The Arizona outfit expands upon their ’80s-influenced sound with ambient interludes and less conventional arrangements.
Eyes in the Water - Fine China

Much has been written of the musical evolution that led to Talk Talk’s seminal 1988 album, Spirit of Eden. When Mark Hollis and his bandmates first started out in 1981, their glossy, synth-heavy music immediately pegged them as pretenders to Duran Duran’s throne — an assertion aided by songs like “Talk Talk” as well as the fact that both bands shared a producer (Colin Thurston) and even toured together.

Just five years later, however, with 1986’s The Colour of Spring, it was clear that Hollis et al. had loftier artistic aspirations, and when they entered the studio to begin recording what would become Spirit of Eden — which eventually turned into a year-long process — they ditched everything that had made Talk Talk, well, Talk Talk. Eschewing new wave and synth-pop, or rather, transmuting them through jazz, classical, blues, prog, and electronic music, Spirit of Eden was the sound of a different band altogether, and subsequently became the stuff of legend.

I mention all of this musical history because Arizona’s Fine China seems to be on a similar journey.

Starting out as a scrappy ’80s-influenced outfit, Fine China drew countless comparisons to New Order and The Smiths on albums like When the World Sings and You Make Me Hate Music. After a long absence, the band returned in 2018 with the excellent Not Thrilled, which bore some resemblance to those pouty first albums while imbued with the sort of maturation, bittersweetness, and emotional heft that only comes about with the passage of time and the onset of middle-age. But last year, they released Trees at Night, a three-song EP that focused less on pristine pop melodies and instead, luxuriated in ambient textures inspired by the vintage New Age of Mannheim Steamroller, Andreas Vollenweider, and Windham Hill.

Which brings us to Eyes in the Water, which drifts further into that shadowy realm. Rob Withem, Thom Walsh, and Greg Markov still grace us with some pop melodies (e.g., “Breathtaker”). But most of the EP’s thirty-one minutes are instead comprised of cinematic atmospherics, field recordings, meandering arpeggios, starlit synths, and chorused guitar riffs.

While I’m definitely a sucker for this sort of vintage ambience — they had me at Mannheim Steamroller — Eyes in the Water is very much an experiment, a point of transition. In other words, Fine China clearly wants to explore more expansive sounds, but they’re still charting their path, which means the occasional dead-end or rabbit trail. The EP’s finest moments (e.g., “Whitebelt”) occur when they successfully juxtapose the various sides of their sound: the synths, the pop melodies, and the New Age ambience. Plus, Rob Withem singing out “I wanna be so young” on the song’s rapturous chorus is never not affecting.

Eyes in the Water is not Fine China’s Spirit of Eden. They’re not there… yet. But it’s clear that, like Talk Talk, Fine China no longer want to be “just” a pop band. They have bigger aspirations, aspirations that are leading them down some interesting paths. It might cost them some fans who’d rather hear Fine China continually revisit New Order-esque programming and Johnny Marr riffs — which, admittedly, they do really well — but I think this still-nascent journey will ultimately be worth it.

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