While I can safely say that I did enjoy Fat White Family’s sophomore album (Songs For Our Mothers) when I reviewed it in 2016, it proved to be for the wrong reasons. I liked it, but I missed the point (or at least I think I did); it wasn’t until I sunk a stylus into Serfs Up! – the London-based band’s third album – and the running made it through “Feet” (the A-side’s opening cut) and cracked into “I Believe in Something Better” that I nearly jumped to my feet and announced, “I get it! Now it all makes sense!” If I’m right, Fat White Family’s musical raison d’etre is not to make fashion-conscious, scenester-iffic rock. That fact is made perfectly self-evident on Serfs Up! and, with that realization made early, the album proceeds to get better as it progresses.
After “I Believe in Something Better,” sets a standard for Serfs Up!, the album continues along its own inimitable course as singer Lias Kaci Saoudi whispers out a menacing incantation and the band assembles a very noxious and eerily dark instrumental dirge behind it (think Flaming Lips, but without the obvious irony that band normally relies on) before tapping into a far more accessible (if no less bizarre) and hypnotic drive for “Kim’s Sunsets.” Somehow (perhaps without trying), Fat White Family stumbles into a very “Eric Clapton-esque” space as the song’s rhythm track wheedles very close to the very “white boy reggae” form that Clapton loved so well in both the Seventies and Eighties, and listeners will find it difficult to walk away from the track – even if it’s only because they’re straining so hard to figure out what Saoudi is mumbling about [lines like, “Age on the brain, same rain, it falls/ Again and again, sat like a shell/ That will never be fired, unmesmerized/ How it goes, so it goes/ Kim’s sunsets” are really only intelligible with the help of either the internet or the interior jacket included with the album], which makes the gaunt, howling and groovy weirdness of “Fringe Runner” impossible to avoid as it closes the side. It’s not the easiest thing to listen to, but the hook about “Fringe Runner” – between the compressed keyboard sample, the sleepy rhythm figure and the clanking guitar parts which sound like a strange mix between Jeordie White, Adrien Belew and Mickey Melchiondo – is the well-honed design of its composition; the amount of time and labor so obviously put into it makes it even more engaging and it ensures that listeners will need to flip the record over, because they’ll be dying for a second helping.
…And that second side does not leave listeners wanting – when it comes to presenting some unusual slabs of pop. The B-side of Serfs Up! opens with the sardonically-intoned and stringy “Oh Sebastian” before “Tastes Good With The Money” instantly finds listeners hooked by the sinister combination of the song’s punchy, solid beat, the best guitar performance anywhere on the album and Saoudi’s genuinely perfect vocal performance. There, the singer pushes his voice out hard through his nose to make it sound particularly whiney, but it becomes both eery and comical as horns begin to appear in the mix and the stringy guitar which appears throughout the cut begins feeling mean-spirited. The result if something which sounds akin to the Oompah Loompahs’ performance in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and most of the music which appears in the score of the Wizard of Oz; it’s all very bright and very shiny, and really fucking surrealist and weird. The string-touched and whisper-sung cut which follows it (“Rock Fishes”) continues in that tradition marvellously before “When I Leave” shifts gears in a very boozy movement and “Bobby’s Boyfriend” manages to find a middle ground between Tom Waits and the Beach Boys and leaves listeners to try and re-discover their sense of balance after what felt like a whirlwind.
When listeners are able to collect themselves after the Serfs Up! experience, they’ll also discover that while the album might not at all have been what they expected, it’s definitely a gratifying journey that they’ll want to revisit. The list of reasons why may be as unusual as the music on the album, but they’re completely impossible to discount – Serfs Up! is weird – but it’s definitely a good weird.
(Domino Recording Company)