When British indie pop unit Fear of Men collected the best moments from their small-run cassette and 7" releases on 2013's Early Fragments, they offered a wider audience a messy but incredibly compelling look into their still incubating world of dark themes and spellbinding melodies. Formed by a couple of art-school kids, the young group entwined the sound of dreamy-eyed lesser-known shoegaze acts like Curve and Lush with the broken optimism and beleaguered pop genius of the Smiths, all supporting vocalist/lyricist Jessica Weiss' jarringly direct lyrics of existential angst and emotional bankruptcy. While the lyrics veered quickly toward bleakness, the band's way with hooks and jangly guitar parts covered that dread with a sheen of sugar and resulted in one of the stronger collections of early singles in the indie canon. Channeling the energy from something as brilliant as Early Fragments into a proper debut album was a tall order, but Loom, Fear of Men's first record not culled from previously released material, not just keeps the momentum, but builds on it. The rough-around-the-edges feel of those early tracks was part of what made the band so intriguing, but Loom replaces that raw energy with a heightened confidence and deeper self-awareness. No longer trying on various hats, Fear of Men have a more defined approach on these songs, taking the best elements from their strongest songs and expanding the scope of both composition and production. This begins almost immediately with the 50-second organ drone/vocal piece "Alta," which bleeds into the shadowy, driving pop of "Waterfall." Weiss' melodies are refined into punchy blasts, their hooks sinking in even deeper when strange ambient textures, string arrangements, and noisy tape manipulation experiments creep into the song's mix. Walls of vocal harmonies and flute overdubs compete with washes of guitar feedback on "America," and standout track "Descent" buries tracks of chiming acoustic instruments and haunted backing vocals beneath its tense dynamics. Rather than leaning on preexisting templates left behind by the shoegaze gods or trendy sad-eyed indie pop acts, the songs breathe with a contained mania, cramming experimental impulses, chamber pop touches, and guitar squall into meticulously arranged compartments. The band's musical complexities are mirrored by Weiss' sullen lyrics, which when inspected are far more emotionally intricate than they are simply depressive. Lines like "You know there's a price to pay for living through me" jump out, adding a dire seriousness to the band's often lilting, daydreamy sound. Even without paying close attention, the dichotomy of weary sickness and youthful joy can be felt throughout the album, as springy guitars and upbeat tunes coexist with a sense of deep exhaustion and images of decay. Fear of Men come all that much closer to the mastery of their uniquely conflicted perspective on pop music with Loom, offering a set of songs as effortlessly enjoyable as they are smart, as inspired as they are hopeless.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas