Why can’t I stop listening to Fontaines D.C.?Fontaines D.C. have been one of the breakout acts of the last couple of years. Listening on repeat, our writer wonders why he is so hooked on their music and why he isn’t even close to getting bored. What is it about Fontaines D.C.?

I know it’s not exactly an underground thing to have as your most played artist on a Spotify 2021 end-of-year review, but there they are. It turns out that I’m finding it hard to stop listening to Fontaines D.C.. The baffling Spotify stat tells me that I’m in the top 0.1% of listeners for the band. I’m not sure what that really means – it’s hard to picture and seems quite a pointless thing to measure anyway.

That 0.1% is the numerical equivalent of being on the front row of a gig that isn’t actually happening and that I’m not actually attending. It’s meant to feel like some sort of accolade, but it isn’t. I’m pretty sure that it’s just a number designed to boost my ego and to keep me coming back to the streaming platform for more music. That’s how these platforms work. What the data analysts don’t know, at least I don’t think they do, is that I got the second album on vinyl. So they’ve only actually managed to numerate half of my Fontaines D.C.-listening.

Pointless percentages aside, that indecipherable number did get me thinking about just how much I’ve listened to Fontaines D.C. during the relentless grind of 2021. Of all the bands and all the automated playlists, why did I get hooked on Fontaines D.C.? What is it about them? Are they all that different from a number of other bands that any regular reader of LTW could easily list? My listening habits are telling me that the answer is stern yes. They are. Not necessarily better than those other bands, but there seems to be some subtle difference that has made this band’s albums stickier. The grooves just aren’t wearing out. Listening on repeat, why haven’t I got bored?

On the surface you could be forgiven for thinking of Fontaines D.C. as just another garage rock or, maybe, garage pop outfit (depending on the flavour you give to those terms). Superficially, they might appear to be full of all sorts of familiar reference points. An intertextual hand seemingly points back through the history of music and lands somewhere close to the 1960s.

A quick listen to some of their most famous tracks and you might mistakenly, very mistakenly, think of them as throwbacks to some moment in pop music’s past when a formula for slightly distorted guitars, upbeat drums and reverby vocals locked together in harmony. It would be careless, but you could drop Fontaines D.C. into the pastiche bucket, without a thought.

They have those elements. They perform them very well, yet that is not the limit of their sound. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with calling on a musical past if you are doing something good with it. Fontaines D.C. undoubtedly draw upon the past and they repackage it in ways that make it instant without being obvious. There are generally two directions that this referencing of musical history can go: toward a kind of stodgy nostalgia, or, if used creatively, toward lending the music a timeless quality. It’s the more creative and lively second option that Fontaines D.C. take.

There is no doubt that they write great music. These may even be classic tracks. The songs themselves are crafted without ever feeling overworked or contrived. They manage to keep the tracks loose even though they’ve clearly been worked-up and tuned to a fine polish. There is a casualness and well-managed scruffiness that stops things from getting too neat. Unvarnished music for rough times. Nothing is laboured, they make song writing seem simple. Despite the seeming ease, each track keeps up with what looks like an impossible standard. Consistency is a big part of their appeal. But the consistent quality of the music doesn’t really explain why this listener keeps being drawn back into the songs, repeatedly.

I’m writing this as A Hero’s Death, the seemingly-not-all-that-difficult second album, spins again on my record player. It leads me to think about the experience of rewatching classic films and TV. Rewatching things only really works, in the long-run at least, if there is something unseen to capture your attention, something that you didn’t notice the first or second time around. The answer might be here. Maybe there are depths to this music that a single listen cannot quite reveal.

Jigsaw-like, it is surprising how the band seeks to make quite different instrumental lines fit together without them simply overlapping. As separate yet connected entities you can hear the instruments politely moving around one another, steadily shuffling and jostling. It is more like they are orbiting the vocals rather than placing themselves around it. They don’t fall into a simple formation. Instead they do surprising things. These moments can be sonically strange, with weird and pulsing noises overlaying the more structured components. Elsewhere the instruments find ways to depart from one another in harmonic but unexpected ways. And then there are some rhythmic chops and changes that allow for different dynamics to emerge. Sometimes the sounds clash against one another, cramming into tight spaces, then, in other places, the instruments drop away to leave big spaces in which the stripped-back simplicity echoes.

There are spiralling depths that reveal themselves within the sonic textures. Fontaines D.C.’s two albums are the musical equivalent of the staircase shot in Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo. As you look down the ground telescopes away from you. The one flight of stairs that these songs might at first appear become far more. Sonically these songs are the product of musicians building up the architectures, adding floor upon floor. There is also some interesting use of the recording studio to add to this layering. The band’s own sound was fed-back to them through an additional layer of amplification – a technique that the band and their producer Dan Carey have talked about in a recent Tape Notes podcast episode. This gives a boost to the textures, so too do the intermingled arrangements and the combinations of winding-riffs and sounds.

There are other depths here too. The band members’ shared enthusiasm for poetry is evident in the lyricism. There are some of the usual themes you’d expect, but the poetics are deft and thoughtful too. The melodies are delivered with a casual air that belies the provocative lyrical themes. The neat and punctuated delivery of appealing phrases, like the poignant ‘Life aint’ always empty’ on the title track of the second album, catch the ear. Then there are little hidden gems tucked away within the verses, ‘Don’t let a clock tell you what you’ve got time for’.

There are the brittle moments too, which are perhaps the strongest of all. The lightly delivered closing line ‘I wished I could go back to spring again’ is one stand-out moment. And the fluttering ‘Hey love, are you hanging on’ carries a gentle sentimentality with it. There are sharp moments too. The acerbic list at the start of Checkless Reckless is a good place to start with that side of things. The lyrics can also be impressionistic, painting loose and imaginative pictures. I’m not sure I know exactly what ‘ready, steady violence’ is, but it immediately conjures an image. There is space for the imagination to fill the gaps.

I write about music from time to time for LTW, and it’s often hard to find ways to describe what I’m hearing. It’s difficult to articulate thoughts on music. Sound doesn’t adapt easily to words. It’s even harder to understand why particular pieces of music are good or what it is about a song or album that is appealing. I may not have found the right words here, but there is definitely something going on with Fontaines D.C..

They are probably now at a level of popularity where, if you are into indie exclusivity, you might start to be wary. They are managing to cross-over, at which point it’s easy, as a music fan, to get a little shaky. But the quality of the music is just too good to ignore and its depth and craft seem to me to stand out. Frankly, I don’t care how big they get if they keep making music that is crafted to this standard. The fact I’ve listened so much and haven’t got bored is telling me something. Sometimes, if you can’t find the words, the best thing to say about music is that you keep playing it over and over again. A lack of boredom is a much bigger compliment than it sounds.

Fontaines D.C. official website is here.

~

Words by Dave Beer.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. This is the first time i’ve ever read an article about a band that i completely agree with 100% ! the words used and the way you’ve explained your delight in this fantastic band is exactly what’s been bouncing around in my head since listening to both of these truly splendid albums!! and having seen them live for the first time recently it’s made every listen since even more of a joy !!!

  2. Great review David. I agree. I do not use Spotify, I just refuse, but both albums have been played again and again. Wonderful writing.

  3. I can’t agree more. Been listening to music for 50 years of all kinds but can’t stop listening to them. Looking forward to new album in early 2022.The song “I Love You” if that’s what it is called was amazing.

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