All words: Dan Singer
All photos: Emily Cohen
At some point during my freshman year of high school, I decided to branch out and explore music that didn’t necessarily have a punk or ska label attached to it. I eventually settled on psych/chamber/sunshine pop as my area of focus, since I liked the melodic arrangements and occasional horns and strings. I started with the wonderful bands of the Elephant 6 Collective, discovered the Flaming Lips, dug into The Beach Boys and then made my way to some truly cheesy shit, like The Yellow Balloon and The Free Design.
Without a hint of irony, 15-year-old me really enjoyed this stuff. I liked the major chords and the instrumentation, as well as the idea that music could be intelligent and catchy at the same time. The problem was that most of these bands were old news, and the Lips were well past the days of “Yoshimi” and “The Soft Bulletin.” I wanted to identify with something like-minded but a little fresher. That something ended up being fun.
Well, first it was The Format, fun. singer Nate Ruess’ previous band. I learned about The Format on the heels of their breakup but quickly embraced their final album, “Dog Problems.” It’s a free-spirited record with the smart melodicism I was into, along with an added dose of melancholy sarcasm that went beyond the naivety of sunshine pop. “Dog Problems” is still one of my favorites, and it put me in a position to be genuinely excited when Ruess announced he was forming a new band.
When fun. put out their first single on Myspace, “At Least I’m Not As Sad As I Used To Be,” I was amazed by how closely it aligned with what I was looking for in music at the time. I felt the same way about their pastel-colored debut “Aim and Ignite” when it was released later in 2009. The songs were sugary and whimsical, and Ruess’ lyrics were rife with personality. “Aim and Ignite” isn’t shy about its Beach Boys and ELO inspiration, and names attached to its production include members of Redd Kross and Jellyfish, fun.’s direct predecessor in my mind.
Critics of fun. are often quick to dismiss the band based on the singles from their 2012 album “Some Nights” that have become ubiquitous in popular culture over the past year-and-a-half. Sure, anything can get grating when you hear it enough, especially when it’s endorsed by three groups music elitists love to hate: “Glee” fans, teenyboppers and corporate America. But fun. is still the same band that released “Aim and Ignite,” if not a more forward-thinking “Some Nights,” and they’ve effectively raised the bar for smarts in mainstream pop/rock music.
Compare a Billboard chart-topper like the Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah,” or any 2000s butt-rock hit, to “We Are Young” and “Some Nights,” and there is no question as to which songs are more sophisticated and nuanced. I honestly don’t mind that 12-year-olds are eating this stuff up. Maybe they’ll get obsessive and discover fun.’s highly listenable origins: Ruess’ The Format, Jack Antonoff’s Steel Train and Andrew Dost’s Anathallo. Maybe they’ll check out “Aim and Ignite” and someday be inclined to explore the genius of Harry Nilsson and XTC, as I did. It’s easy to be dismissive of fun. when they’re embraced by demographics that don’t exactly purvey good taste, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a more fascinating pop music archaeology project, especially of the non-hip-hop and non-Foo Fighters variety, that has found major success in recent years.
Fun.’s show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday night reminded me of the first concert I attended: Green Day, at the same venue, in 2005. The lawn was equally packed, and despite a strong thunderstorm that drenched those folks, there was just as much energy in the place. Nate Ruess and Billie Joe Armstrong share a boyish smile and the ability to win over a crowd with sheer charisma. Even in terms of historical parallels, I remember reading about how Green Day found indie success with “Kerplunk” and alienated a number of those fans when they made the jump to the big leagues with “Dookie.”
This was my fifth fun. show, the first one being a $15 ticket at the 9:30 Club in December 2010. Ruess said the Merriweather show was the biggest the band had ever played, and he ended Saturday’s set by thanking the fans who have supported them since their early 9:30 Club and Jammin’ Java gigs. The fanboy validation was pretty cool, admittedly, but it was neat to see Ruess acknowledge that, despite fun.’s rapid ascendance, they haven’t forgotten their roots. One-third of the set still consisted of “Aim and Ignite” songs, and it’s nice to know that the band seems intent on introducing that material to their newly gigantic audience.
Seeing Green Day eight years ago single-handedly changed the way I thought about music. The songs I loved became outlets for catharsis, and I begged my parents to take me to concerts because nothing else provoked the same kind of passionate response. Even though I’ve heard every song fun. played on Saturday more times than I can count, I still find it remarkable that they are connecting with people on increasingly massive stages. Ultimately, it takes a special kind of magnetism to get me on the same page as 12-year-olds and middle-aged parents, and that transcends the relationship between good taste and my self-concept. I’d like to think that a handful of those 12-year-olds left this show thrilled and exhausted because they found themselves completely immersed in the concert-going experience. Maybe they’re a little curious as well about what else is out there. Even if they’re not cueing up “Pet Sounds” at this very second, they could be doing much worse.
Big props to Tegan and Sara for a solid, punchy opening set. “Heartthrob: is one of the strongest pop albums of the year, and the ladies’ new technicolor jams sounded great. In one of those lovely moments of unintentional text painting, the night sky was literally changing overhead during “Closer.” Tegan and Sara were given a full hour to play through “Heartthrob” songs and oldies like “Back In Your Head” and “Where Does the Good Go.” They have enough good material at this point in their run that there’s really no quality lag, even if people have their personal favorites. I’d love to see them headline if they come back anytime soon.