It's hard to exactly pin down the elusive, ineffable quality of Red Flags by Nonbeliever, the debut album from Manchester's Stephen Fairbanks. From the opening strains of "Sleeper (Won't Leave Me Alone)", with its shivering guitars and haunted, middle of the night electronics, there is a charge to the hair, a feeling of promise, but also a threat, like a thunderstorm about to break.
This elusive quality makes Nonbeliever hard to classify for convenient market strategies while simultaneously being the best thing about Red Flags. Fairbanks quite modestly describes the album simply as 'indie folk' and 'indie rock' on bandcamp, which might lead you to believe you're about to hear a Blitzen Trapper or Cymbals Eat Guitars parody.
Instead, you get a ghostly, jazzy folk noir with more in common with the first wave of indie rock, particularly the ornate gothic splendour of the 4AD label and the whipsmart lamenting romanticism of The Smiths.
The closest sonic similarity, that serves as a potent allegory for Nonbeliever, would be the most excellent slowcore/dream pop band The Sundays, who were (in my opinion) one of the finest purveyors of dreamy, languid romantic folk flecked rock 'n roll, who were labeled simply as 'alternative rock', during their existence. Had they simply been described as 'goth', or 'shoegaze' or 'dream pop', they would probably be one of the biggest bands on the planet, with several successful reunion tours under their belt, right alongside My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, where they belong. Instead, you don't hear much about The Sundays, except among the initiated.
Here is our chance to get things right, be reading between the lines, by looking beyond signifiers and analytics, and looking for the beating pulse and breath of this record.
Red Flags was entirely conceived in Fairbanks' living room, including mixing, mastering, and production, even going so far as to create his own imprint, Nonrefundable Records, to put it into the world. He plays every instrument himself - guitar, keys, drums and electronics, and is remarkably good at each. The guitar playing is the most stand-out element of the record - elegant, undulating liquid lines, along the lines of the under-appreciated Felt's ornate filigree and Television's Tom Verlaine, but suddenly giving way to some fried flange funk and garage stomp, that sounds like listening to The White Stripes through the walls of a concrete bunker, like on one of the album's highlights, "Hey Lo".
This dichotomy is imperative to note, lest you think you're getting into a gothic mope fest. There is a dreamy, romantic feeling to most of Red Flags, but there is also a stomping, cavernous garage feel, with subtle jazz inflections, mainly in the guitars. In this way, Fairbanks also has a semblance to the much missed Jeff Buckley, another artist who was hard to pigeonhole, but fostered legions of imitators.
Fairbanks expressed hesitation about hearing his voice on record for the first time, but he needn't have worried. Superb performances, great diction, perfectly mixed. Let Red Flags be a lesson for anyone who says you can''t mix your own music, or release legendary recordings from your living room. So, regardless of what you call Red Flags, it is brilliant music, by any name. Heartfelt, honest, with exquisite performances and outstanding production values. It's a little staggering. Let's let 2015 be the year that we start really listening to music again, REALLY paying attention, reading the lyrics, playing albums all the way through to the bitter end. If you make it to the end of Red Flags, I can almost guarantee you'll move the needle back to the outer rim.
A superb achievement.
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