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Over the past four years, the Faint has been quietly developing a new-wave sound that harks back to the golden era of '80s pop, all analog synthesizers, danceable beats and snotty lyrics. Some who've followed the band's progression -- from an unknown Omaha act to an indie phenomenon currently selling out shows across the country and enjoying the courtship of several major labels -- have repeatedly pegged it a retro act attempting to emulate the mock-'80s sound that bands like the Rentals semi-successfully co-opted a few years ago. If that was indeed what the Faint was up to, it would be hard to find fault with it: American commercial radio is flooded with nostalgia for the '80s. How natural, then, that a young band should look back, rather than forward, for inspiration -- not to mention audience share. As marketing strategies go, it'd be a brilliant move.
The only thing is, the members of the Faint are neither revivalists nor ironists. For one thing, the band's members -- who hover around a median age of 23 -- grew up deluged by the sounds of Nirvana and Soundgarden, not Depeche Mode and Devo. To hear the Faint's players tell it, their music is a response to the bloated alternative-rock "explosion" that dominated airwaves, and brainwaves, during their teenage years in the mid-'90s. So while its sound does draw upon the same tension and raw emotion that informed the Reagan-era Cold War climate and the pop acts that inspired, the Faint remains a thing of the present, perhaps even the future.
"We're not the kind of people who would consciously try to emulate music we heard growing up," says bassist and founding member Joel Petersen. "I actually grew up listening to a lot of obscure hardcore stuff, like Agent Orange."
While the Faint's strength lies in crafting a synth-heavy, and often happy, form of melodic pop, guitars have always been a big part of its music. Traces of punk, along with the energy of hardcore and the restraint of indie rock, are evident as well. In fact, full-fledged keyboard sound was a late addition. In 1994, current members Todd Baechle (vocals, synth), Clark Baechle (drums) and Petersen (bass) formed under the name Norman Bailer, a lo-fi pop band that released cassette tapes and played in coffee shops around Omaha. At the time, the Nebraska capital was just coming into its own as an unlikely hub of smart underground music, an epicenter of the indie-pop and math-rock/emo stylings that surfaced in groups like Cursive. Fed up with what they saw as the conformity of the city's scene, the players made a conscious choice to sound different from other area outfits. They released the light-as-air lo-fi single "Light Rock" as a sort of jab at Omaha artists who were trying a little too hard to sound hard.
In 1998, the band rechristened itself the Faint and released a debut full-length, Media, on LBJ Records. After months of touring in support of the album, Jacob Thiele was enlisted as a full-time keyboardist, rounding out a lineup that also includes guitarist Mike Dappen. The group's music moved further away from conventional indie songwriting and evolved into a darker form of synth pop. Blank-Wave Arcade, released in 1999 on Omaha's Saddle Creek Records, proved to be its breakthrough record, one that drips with buzzing, punk-rock, basement-party analog-synth vibes. Songs like "Worked Up So Sexual" gained the Faint an almost cult-like status in certain circles with their angular guitar lines, infectious synth-driven choruses and pulsing rhythms -- not to mention the steamy undertones penned by Todd Baechle, the band's primary lyricist.
"That record really captured the intensity of our live shows," says Petersen. "We weren't really going for a polished sound. That came later."
Indeed, Danse Macabre, the Faint's late 2001 release, sports dance-club-quality production.
"Surprisingly," continues Petersen, "most people agree with us that it's a better record."
From the opening creep of analog bass lines and nervous guitars, Danse Macabre crackles with melodic intensity only suggested on the Faint's earlier recordings. It's as if the band has found the formula for meshing the urgency of punk with the precision of technology. Lyrically, the album marks a bleaker, more thoughtful direction. Gone are Blank-Wave Arcade's sexual themes; in their place are straightforward musings on death, betrayal, and cultural and emotional paralysis. A good example of Baechle's new lyrical mode is found in the verses of the CD's opener, "Agenda Suicide": "The element of progress/ that you mention is gone/It devolved to something you were headed toward/As I lay to die the things I think/Did I waste my time/I think I did/All we want are just pretty little homes/Our work makes pretty little homes." Not exactly ready for TRL, but that's the way the Faint likes it.
"People are always trying to put their finger on our sound, like, 'Oh, you guys are an industrial band trying to make synth-pop' or whatever," Petersen says. "But all we're trying to do is make music that is challenging and melodic at the same time. We're always trying to evolve musically."
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