The Phantom Tollbooth
April 1999 Pick of the Month

The Way We Are
Artist: Fleming and John
Label: Universal Records
Length: 16 tracks / 60:24

Fleming and John's debut four years ago on REX (re-released shortly after on Universal) was one heck of a unique alterna-pop/rock album, with Fleming's gorgeously freaky voice stunning many music-lovers into unabashed slobbering. Few bands could sustain the loving anticipation on the strength of one album that this one has. Understandably, it's been torture waiting so long for a follow-up, teased on and off by rumors of a new release the past couple of years. But it's finally here.

Reactions will no doubt be mixed when expectations of such height are involved. The Way We Are is good, but it may be a bit of a let-down. Neither the "California Dreamin'" cover from the Vietnam music compilation or the cool "Misty Mountain Hop/Jingle Bells" track from their website are included. And there's no "I'm Not Afraid" rockers on this one, either. They're understandably making a push for radio play (have you heard "The Pearl" yet?) by polishing the pop aspect of their music. As a side effect, without repeated listens the songs don't stand apart from one another quite so much as those on Delusions of Grandeur. This one's a grower.

The Way We Are  is still far different from anything else out there, though. John Mark Painter has a Midas touch with instruments, and he pulls in clavinet, theremin, timpani, chimes, flugelhorn, cello, balalaika, vibes, piano, organ, accordion, and twice as many other exotic sounds you've probably never heard of. His guitar lines are kept to a minimum. Ghosts of '60s, 70s, and '80s pop, rock, disco, lounge, jazz, and alternative excellence swirl around Fleming's delicious surreal-angelic vocals, and studio excesses galore will gleefully fill your headphones. At times, however, the music is unsettling due to Middle-Eastern influences and Fleming's haunting background vocal dubs.

The lyrics may have many Christians scratching their heads. There are no obvious Christian themes. Rather, most of the songs address different dynamics of healthy and unhealthy human attraction; our desires, regrets, schemes. Some of them are quite shallow, like "Ugly Girl" (written partly by friend Ben Folds)--"you could not imagine my surprise/can't you see you're leaving me for an ugly girl?." Others, like "Comfortable," describe the situation every couple eventually finds themselves in:

        I think that you'll agree we've become predictable
        but I really don't mind being this comfortable
        sometimes I try to shake it up
        tickle the passion wake it up

The key to understanding the lyrics is in the title: The Way We Are. Many Christians are into music about The Way We Should Be, which may make them uncomfortable with the honesty about human relationships in all their glory and dysfunction portrayed here. However, veiled references to longing for God's attention fill "I'm So Small," and the first radio single, "The Pearl," will bring to mind the imagery of Jesus' parable:

        it could be the pearl
        it could be our hope our dream our life
        it could be the pearl
        the end of all our pain and strife
 
        run keep on running
        oh I hear them coming
        how could they try to take what is ours
        please run faster
        oh they're right behind us

The song, however, is based on John Steinbeck's novel of the same name, about a poor fisherman who finds a giant pearl that he hopes will provide security for his family, but only brings fear and death. It's a parable of the destructive vanity of seeking material security.

As with any album, fans will just have to check out The Way We Are for themselves. The novelty of Fleming's voice isn't quite as strong the second time around (although it's certainly still trippy-cool), and there aren't as many memorable moments as on the last album, but music this creatively-crafted can't help but please.

By Josh Spencer       3/19/99


 

After four years Fleming and John have released their second effort. My first listen was a little disappointing but Fleming's gorgeous voice along with lots of relationship songs with plenty of hooks keep drawing me in. Is there a song like Sixpence's "Kiss Me" to push them into the big time? Unfortunately, only time will tell. In the meanwhile, pick up this gem and decide for yourself.

Shari Lloyd (3/20/99)

 

Sometimes lightening really does strike twice--even if it has to take different forms. The Way We Are is chock-full of lavish mid-tempo numbers, lush ballads and bombastic rockers. Regrettably, John Painter's impressive guitar work is more muted this time. Instead we get to hear him use a list of instruments longer than this review, raising the question is there nothing he can't play? Fleming's distinctive vocals take center stage, and seem less shrill this outing which may sway former naysayers who cared little for her pseudo-operatic stunts and high-pitched wailing. Not to play the role of Amy Grant's old critics, but the only real bummer is the lack of any particular Christian content. One of my favorite songs from Delusions of Grandeur was "A Place Called Love," not only for its delightfully exuberant execution, but for the hopeful heavenly message. No such sanctified and cheery content here, despite some overall clever lyrical offerings. Regardless, this slickly produced and peppy pop smart collection does grow better and better with every listen. Though a harder edge to some of these songs would be preferable, this lightening bolt may feel different, but it still has electrifying impact.

By Steven S. Baldwin (3/26/99)

Fleming and John's debut release established them as one of the most  interesting rock outfits with Christian connections. It's taken too  long for this follow-up to hit the shelves, but it's a gem nevertheless.  Intricate pop with influences from all over the western musical landscape  and occasionally beyond, this album may take some time to grow on  listeners but is well worth the concentration

James Stewart (3/31/99)