Free Time, ‘Free Time’ – Album Review
On first listen, New York-via-Melbourne transplants Free Time seem a bit late to the jangly, guitar-driven “bedroom pop” pioneered by Real Estate, Beach Fossils, Wild Nothing and numerous other Captured Tracks or Underwater Peoples bands circa 2009. In fact, band leader and songwriter Dion Nania (who only formed Free Time last summer) clearly benefited from showing up late to the party, as the framework for the sound he adopted was already in place, and all he had to do was put his own spin on it.
Indeed, Free Time’s self-titled debut contains more than its fair share of the languid, reverb-heavy guitar lines, no-frills drumming and hushed, distant vocals of the aforementioned bands, and it would be easy to pass them off as poor imitators if their LP (on Underwater Peoples, fittingly) was not on par with those of their contemporaries.
Opener ‘I Lost Again’ sets the direction of the album with a lazy summer’s day pace -- the guitar lines meander melodically throughout the track, the rhythm section takes its time inching along and Nania’s whispered vocals build slowly to a memorable hook when they merge with the lead guitar in the chorus. As if issuing some kind of mission statement, Nania sings “I’m going to hold my horses, it’s not a race,” and the rest of the album follows this edict, rarely veering from the opening track’s intentionally measured approach.
Free Time build from the same laid-back template as the album progresses, but there are subtle differences in guitar tone that imbue the tracks with variety. ‘It’s Alright’ and ‘It Doesn’t Stop’ make use of clean guitars that occasionally overlap into smooth, watery harmonies, adding to the buoyancy of these already optimistic pop songs, while the slightly dirtier tones and licks of ‘Nature’s Cup’ and ‘Here and There’ reference Nania’s previous stint in the Dunedin Sound-inspired Twerps. There are also moments of fuzzed-out pop that recall the noisier moments of Yo La Tengo or Pavement (‘Just One,’ or the guitar solo freak-out that closes ‘Nothin’ But Nice’), and enough chiming chords to win over C86 devotees worldwide (evident on almost every song).
As with many of the current bands trafficking in the jangly, surf-pop sound, Free Time elevate the guitar to a status equivalent to -- and maybe even above -- the vocal melodies. The guitar does a fair amount of the heavy lifting here, and significant sections of each track are devoted to guitar riffs and fills. This does have its downside, however, as Nania and fellow guitarist Jonah Maurer occasionally struggle to find lead lines that stand out. In ‘Unified Europe,’ for example, the guitars sound aimless and uninspired, like the results of a Real Estate jam session that were later scrapped for something more creative. Nania’s vocal delivery also suffers from this predicament; his singing, already a bit on the delicate side, tends to sound unenthusiastic or timid at points, resulting in a few lackluster moments that leave the listener wanting more. There’s also the issue of pushing the vocals down in the mix -- a creative decision, clearly, but one that renders a fair amount of the lyrics inaudible (although note that Nania playfully sings at one point that he wants to be “inscrutable in every way”).
While Free Time’s missteps are relatively few and far between, they reveal a new band still working through its growing pains, and if their restrained sound is any indication, they’ll perfect their music on their own time and at their own pace -- just don’t rush them.