As Fast As

Open Letter to the Damned

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Spencer Albee, the singer/songwriter behind As Fast As, has been kicking around for about a decade now, first as a member of Rustic Overtones and then as the leader of Rocktopus, which adopted the name As Fast As a little while after their 2003 Something Fierce (a title which would, ironically enough, seem more appropriate in 2006, after Tyra Banks' grand mission to apply "fierce" to everything from walking to confronting a fear of dolphins). As Fast As isn't as wonderfully silly a name as Rocktopus; in fact, it veers just a little bit too close to generic, which is too bad, because their AFA debut Open Letter to the Damned isn't generic at all. It's a glorious rush of power pop sounds from Elvis Costello to Weezer, with a few throwbacks to such '60s touchstones as the Beatles or the Kinks. It's possible to hear all those bands and more on Open Letter to the Damned, since As Fast As draws deeply from the pop tradition and aren't ashamed of it. But listening to this album doesn't become a game of spot the influence -- sure, it's easy to hear melodies inspired by Squeeze, harmonies lifted from old Nick Lowe albums, or vocal phrasing that has Ben Folds as a forefather, but Albee is a sharp songwriter, fusing together his influences instead of merely regurgitating them. He winds up with 11 bright, bold, ceaselessly catchy tunes that are so colorfully melodic, they sound like forgotten favorites upon the first listen. If Albee's vocals can get a little too affected on occasion, as they do on the opening lines of "Wasted Youth," he quickly rights himself with his knack for effortlessly memorable melodies, not to mention the band's muscle -- and as good as the songs are, equal credit should go to the rest of As Fast As, who do not play these songs timidly. They are a rock band playing pop tunes, and the hooks dig in deeper because the group hits harder, which gives Open Letter to the Damned an appealing immediacy. Upon repeated spins, it's easier to appreciate the different textures and styles threaded throughout the album, from the nervy new wave of "Blame It on the Drugs" and the sugary Wall of Sound on "Special" to the slick '70s soft rock of "If I Only Knew" and the heavy, grinding riffs on "This Is Real." This combination of strong first impressions and lasting musical strengths is one that Albee hasn't quite pulled off in the past, but that doesn't matter because he and his band pull it off quite gloriously here on this addictive power pop gem, resulting in one of 2006's biggest and best surprises.

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