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2003-05-01 - Big Fear Review (Audio Revolution)
Common Rotation is a musical conundrum: four guys – lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Eric Kufs, lead singer (yes, the band has two)/songwriter Adam Busch, drummer Ken Beck and bassist Mike Uhler, plus assorted guest musicians, who display enormous proficiency in performing articulate, catchy songs that are often focus on their concerns about being trite and forgettable. Based on the contents of their second album, The Big Fear, these, er, fears are unwarranted – but they sure make for some swell tracks.

Much of Common Rotation’s considerable charm derives from their agility in marrying driving rock beats with a folk ethos. Beck’s swift drums and Uhler’s emphatic yet ever-fluid bass keep the music punchy, while Kufs’ sparkling acoustic finger-picking contributes lively melodies. The double-frontman feature, with Kufs and Busch sometimes trading off lead vocal position within individual numbers, is a relatively unique aspect of the band that creates a mood of exuberance, even when the words paint a contrastingly bleak picture. Kufs is a little more soulful and twangy, Busch is a little more big-city intense; when the two blend voices, the effect is consistently transfixing.

The theme of creative worry introduces itself on the opening number, “Indie Rockin’,” which contains the title phrase. The song manages the tightrope-balancing act of sending up an entire genre of music while remaining totally credible as a straight-ahead rocker. The track starts in low-fi, with an electronic whine that sets up a garage demo ambience, then switches to hi-fi two lines in as Busch’s vocals give us words that swing between ego and apprehensive shame. The chorus commands, “Don’t touch me, I’m a live wire/And I’ll be singin’ this song ‘til these lines grow tired …” The track takes on all the poses of aspiring rock stardom, completely with the inherent problem of going with elements that have become popular to the point of cliché. There’s no name-dropping or finger-pointing; the buck stops here (the irony of course being that “Indie Rockin’” is an utterly appealing example of indie rock).

Kufs takes the vocal lead on the opening of “Post Modern,” commencing with sprightly guitar licks so rhythmic that you may find your fingertips taking pops at the nearest tabletop in time with Beck’s responsive percussion. The lyrics speak of dismay at artistic pretension (“I’m getting tired of discussing the poetry of your second act”), along with more direct exasperation (“I can’t stand to look at you”). Busch joins Kufs on the chorus, Beck breaks out the brushes and Uhler’s bass contributes a floor on which the sound is layered, adding up to a number that is as aurally active as it is verbally sly.

Track Three is the The Big Fear’s only cover song, a remake of They Might Be Giants’ “Don’t Let’s Start.” Not coincidentally, The Big Fear is produced by Giants principals Dan Weinkauf and Bryan Speiser. A warm acoustic intro segues into harmonizing between Busch and Kufs, who subsequently trade off lead vocals that rise so euphorically that if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, you may think this is a love song instead of a plaint (lines like “No one in this world ever gets what they want” and “Everybody dies frustrated and alone” should help tip you off). Rapid, light percussion and use of what sounds a whole lot like a fiddle (one gripe about the liner notes on The Big Fear is that they don’t tell you which guest musicians did what) add to the buoyant atmosphere.

The verse sections of “All My Time” ever so slightly evoke the texture of “Everybody’s Talkin,’” the Fred Neil song popularized by Harry Nilsson in “Midnight Cowboy,” with a gently glittering guitar and subtle rhythmic backing to Kufs’ vocals. The track becomes more flowing as Busch contributes some harmonies on lyrics about cookie-cutter rejection (“That’s great but not quite it …/So sorry, but it’s not what we’re lookin’ for”), bouncing ardently along on the chorus, before Kufs gently croons us back to a softer sound.

“Sit Down,” with words and music by Kufs, starts with swirling instrumentation that gives the number an almost calypso flavor before Busch’s vocals kick in with a staccato speed-rap cadence that invites compulsive bopping in place – appropriately enough for a number about a dance floor (“This is a hunting ground …/A lost and found to find out what your feet are for”). There’s a bridge with Kufs and Busch playfully swapping around Caribbean variations on phrasing the good advice “Sit down before you fall down” that gets wonderfully goofy before the music swings back to rock again.

“Savior,” with words and music by Kufs, manages to be trenchant yet subtle as it comments on politics and celebrity. Briskly-strummed guitars and unobtrusive yet essential percussion lay a bed for vocals that overlap in complicated, haunting fashion, with Kufs starting in the lead, then bringing Busch to the forefront for the “Smile for the camera” refrain. The track is notable primarily because of its melancholy, one of the few on the album where the presentation matches rather than counterpoints the mournful substance of the lyrics.

“Prime Time” lightens the tone musically, starting with a back-and-forth acoustic guitar riff and what seem to be maracas, sounding almost quizzical as Busch’s vocals observe in helpful salesmanlike fashion, “A little self-deception/Gets the best reception/When you can’t stomach the prime time.” Uhler’s bass asserts itself, keeping the melody and the intricate rhymes of the verse from seeming too light, until Kufs comes in to lament on the bridge, “I’m sick and tired of reality/Show me something funny.”

“Answering Machine” has beautiful tension and sweep, with layered guitars – sustained, rolling strums and finger-picking – coexisting with Beck’s fluttering percussion and Uhler’s precise bass to convey a sense of aching regret and accusation. A wall of intertwined backup vocals gives the impression of yet another musical instrument behind Kufs’ urgent lead singing (“What was once exciting has now gone out the window/Kicking and biting, like a decrepit dog of war”).

“Offstage Lines” puts across sweaty, self-mocking apprehension (“By the time she had found me/The Indians had crowned me/The king of acoustic guitar/I couldn’t play too well …”) in a number that evokes some Western movie themes musically and lyrically in a discussion of public and private performance anxiety. Busch successfully enunciates the fast-flowing lyrics over guitars in minor keys and quick drumming, making a rock track that somehow conjures memories of Sergio Leone cactus epics and tumbleweeds blowing across the road.

“Fortunate” has what sounds like a synth under the guitar, bass and drum tracks, on a measured, whimsical meditation on romantic chagrin (“I guess I’m fortunate that you’re still by my side/I guess I’m fortunate we have nothing more to hide”). The song will bring a grin to the face of anybody who’s ever heard a live version, as both singers have a tendency to change the words around to suit their mood of the moment (at one show, Busch memorably told off a heckler in spontaneous rhyme without skipping a breath). Kufs and Busch trade lead vocals on various sections, coming together at the end. Again, despite the wistful lyrics, the overall sound builds to something more likely to inspire joy than despair.

Anyone who keeps the disc playing for a few seconds past the end of “Fortunate” will be rewarded with a “hidden track” (which follows “Fortunate” so immediately that it is hidden only by its omission from the liner notes). Kufs briefly comments on the length of the previous track, then moves into his solo acoustic guitar/vocal performance on “Princess of Venice/All Night Rave” (the percussion on this one is supplied by Kufs slapping his instrument). Kufs’ vocals are particularly expressive here, going from wryly recounting his reluctant agreement to hear someone out to passionate involvement in the space of a few words. Exact finger-picking and lyrics that encompass a remarkably wide range of concepts and topics brings the album to a close right at the border where rock meets folk.

The sound mix by Greg Thompson and Jon Griffin is a distinct improvement over that of Common Rotation’s debut album 28 Orange Street. Although The Big Fear is stereo rather than 5.1, it has a very live quality – sit five feet back from your main speakers, don’t look up and you’ll be nearly persuaded that you’re about five feet from the stage where these guys are playing.

“After two thousand years of this history, my friends, something original might be asking far too much,” Kufs sings apologetically on “All Night Rave.” Actually, something original is not asking too much, and what’s more, Common Rotation’s The Big Fear provides it. Even better, it delivers absolute listening fun, proving that there is such a thing as feel-good self-deprecating rock.

Reviewed by - Abbie Bernstein Send us your comments.


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