Lies That Comfort You is the debut album from Fierce Friend, the brain child of local musician Alan Grice, who you may have spotted tinkling the ivories, thumping the tubs, or any other number of vernacular descriptions for performing on instruments, within a great number of Brighton bands. Most notably, multi-instrumental Mr Grice has performed as a side-man for The Electric Soft Parade (keys), Foxes! (bass) and Octopuses (drums), but he’s been a go-to player for many on the scene beyond that, giving him time, opportunity and agency to develop his own skill as a songwriter and arranger, leading almost inevitably to the formation from frequent collaborators of this group as a vehicle for his own compositions. Fierce Friend popped their heads above the parapet a couple of years ago to play a handful of shows, teasing the sounds of this record to eager audiences, but then everything went quiet. So it’s a great pleasure, and a slight surprise, that this album has finally come to light amongst a flurry of renewed activity from the group.
One has to presume that Grice has been hiding away obsessively perfecting this material, for the record has a sumptuous polished pop sound. These smooth, summery songs are smothered in harmony, making it a welcome companion to this unprecedented heatwave we find ourselves experiencing in early May 2018. The album is packed with infectious hook-laden songs, that make for a bit of an indie-pop tour-de-force, if a tour-de-force can be impressive by virtue of its haziness and melancholy! Lead single ‘Don’t Fade Me To White’ is a particularly luscious example: slow, steadily considered, and heart-achingly beautiful, it feels like a centre-piece for the album, and was an excellent choice for the first single, quickly snapped up by BBC 6Music for some airplay.
It’s in this mode when the album works best: where the band get your goosebumps standing with perfectly executed smooth indie-pop, on the kind of tunes the kings of yacht rock would be composing if they too had been raised on Elliott Smith, Ben Folds, and Pavement’s Terror Twilight. In particular ‘Already Done’ and ‘The Great Elephant’ work as companions to ‘Don’t Fade Me To White’, finding a similar pace. This album isn’t a one trick pony but some of the other places it takes you are not necessarily as easy to swallow. ‘Morning Lullaby’, for example, denies the dreaminess of its title to present an exercise in tightly orchestrated chaos that can be quite a challenge to the casual listener. It’s cleverly messy, in that everything is ordered and considered, to deliberately create an effect that’s jarring – a pitch-shifted guitar glissando repeats defiantly throughout the track, fighting against the group’s core tendency to find consonance in even the most complex of harmonies.
In another example we have ‘Sugar Landing’, a song that sounds saccharine and sugar-coated, but with a hint of menace and a lyric about some devilish bug that lays its eggs in your ear. Although it does tend towards velvety soft throughout the album, there’s something a little disconcerting about the lack of tension in Grice’s voice when he delivers the lines: “Lose my mind/ don’t bug me off/ go plant your eggs in somebody else’s head”. It’s as if he’s resigned himself to this torture, only offering the feeblest resistance. Generally speaking I found the faster paced stuff on the album to be less effective than the mellow grooves, sometimes feeling like a group trying to play outside their comfort zone, rather than embracing their strengths, but the title track ‘Lies That Comfort You’ bucks this trend. Sounding like Ben Folds Five at their buoyant best, this really is a triumph, hurtling along through a brightly coloured array of clever chords (Chord Orchard is truly a fitting label for this record) before signing off with a trumpet solo that’s riotous fun.
If anything I’d say ‘Lies That Comfort You’ would sit better earlier in the album, perhaps swapping places with ‘The Great Elephant’ and its companion ‘The Elephant Escapes’ for, although those songs feature some of my favourite music on the album, the reprise coming so early on feels like a bit of a distraction and certainly a loss of momentum. ‘Lies…’ also seems to work as a bit of a decoder for the rest of the album. The more you listen to the record, the more you notice the dark shadows hiding within the light arrangements, and songs like ‘Morning Lullaby’ begin to make more sense within this wider context. As we seek comfort in these soft sounds and moments of beauty, there’s the sense that reality gets in the way. The harder you try to find or create order the harder life fights back and gives you pause, irritation or frustration. On the surface this is just a luscious indie-pop album, but there’s a lot bubbling away beneath, and that makes for a compelling listen, one you may find yourself returning to time after time.