Not Thrilled by Fine China (Review)

Fine China return after thirteen years with some of their best songs to date. Elegant, wistful pop of the finest sort.
Not Thrilled - Fine China

I’d never say that I’ve grown tired of the stream of favorite bands of mine who’ve reunited and released new music after too-long absences. (Examples of this welcome trend include The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Starflyer 59, Ride, Lush, Luxury, Slowdive, and My Favorite.) But I would say that such reunions have become less of a surprise these days, or rather, they just seem increasingly inevitable. (Why this may be the case is a topic for another post entirely.)

What has remained a surprise, and a very delightful one at that, is how kind time has been to these bands’ post-reunion efforts. News of reunions can spark cynical thoughts (e.g., somebody obviously needed to make a mortgage payment), but in these cases, such thoughts have proved unwarranted. For the aforementioned bands, their new material has either been of a piece with their earlier recordings (as if no time had passed at all) or their new material turns out to be their best yet (the ensuing years having apparently imparted a wisdom and grace that informed the music).

Both of these are true of Not Thrilled, Fine China’s first album since 2005’s The Jaws of Life.

Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the Phoenix band released a number of singles, EPs, and albums filled with breathy, mopey, pitch-perfect indie-pop that boasted all the right influences (e.g., New Order, The Smiths). Not Thrilled picks right up where those releases left off, as if the last thirteen years (if not the last three decades) never happened.

“The Light of Spring,” “Feel Not,” and “Iron Is Your Love” are filled with the same bouncy bass lines, crystal-clear guitar melodies, airy synths, and pouty vocals that made older Fine China songs like “Labor Saving Device” (possibly the greatest song New Order never wrote), “I Dropped a Bomb on Your Heart,” and “Hug Every Friend” so good.

But Not Thrilled also contains songs that may have the usual Fine China trappings but are also slower and more pensive and reflective. They’re still informed by The Smiths, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, et al., but they’re also informed by the same middle-age melancholy that Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin explored to such good effect on 2016’s Slow. Examples include “Anybody Else” (which opens Not Thrilled on a reflective note complete with “Boys of Summer”-esque bridge), “The Hymnal 1982” (a stirring ballad about youthful faith) and the title track (which tempers its bouncy ’80s pop perfection with Rob Withem’s dry lyrics).

A lot of this particular effect is as due to Withem’s voice as it is the sterling guitar sounds and solid hooks. Withem can still sing as breathily as he did on 2000’s When the World Sings (listen to how he drifts oh-so-effortlessly on “Can We Forget About the Nightmare?”). But the years have also tempered his voice with a roughness that meshes nicely with, as Withem told a recent interviewer, the “common themes of my life as a middle-aged man; joy, anxiety, remorse and melancholy.”

My friend Nolan — who actually interviewed Fine China a couple of times — recently reminded me that it’s been nearly 20 years since we saw them at the Cornerstone festival. I still remember that moment vividly. We’d garnered press passes for Cornerstone 2000, which allowed us to go backstage at various shows (and made us feel rather giddy and heady, like we’d finally arrived as music critics).

The very first show we watched from backstage was Fine China’s set during “Tooth & Nail Day,” and it was awesome. The band were just about to release When the World Sings, and when they played “Labor Saving Device” all fancy and dandied up, Nolan and I were practically beside ourselves.

I imagine traveling back in time to that hot, sweaty concert tent, and telling our 2000 selves that not only will they still be listening to Fine China two decades later, but they’ll be listening to some of the best Fine China songs to date. Songs that will still remind them of everything good and golden about pop music. Songs that will make them dance and smile as much as they’re doing right then and there, in the middle of an Illinois cornfield.

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