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Reviewed by Jason Thompson
ou ever hear one of those albums that just clicks with you the very first time you hear it? One of those albums that only promises even greater rewards with repeated listens? Yeah, those are few and far between these days, but Fuji Minx has managed to pull the magical rabbit out of its hat with Users Cheaters Theatres. It’s one of those albums where you can sort of play “spot the influence,” but then it’s a whole new thing unto itself at the same time. If you’re a fan of darker masterpieces like Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain, love the psychedelic phase of The Beatles, and are just a freak for great indie rock that kills, then Fuji Minx will undoubtedly win you over with this album as well.
The band hails from Southern California and has been somewhat mentioned in the same breath as No Doubt, due to its locale. But hear this well: this is the album that No Doubt and/or Gwen Stefani always wished they could have made, if they actually had the skills beyond the party rock. Sure Return of Saturn was “mature,” but Users Cheaters Theatres goes well beyond mere maturity into the realm of something tantalizingly untouchable. The way the sinewy pop hooks sink themselves into the sometimes-baroque soundscapes is nothing short of hypnotic. Lead singer and guitarist Greta Valenti completely owns the songs she sings, whereas Gwen Stefani could often only be bothered to coo her words cutely on command. The rest of the group, featuring John Fry on guitars, Rob Zero on synths, and Noel McMurray on drums and percussion, make the case for those bands who still believe in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I’m Only Sleeping.”
Indeed, I’ll even go so far as to say Fuji Minx gives Jellyfish a run for its money. Not perhaps in over-the-top production with the kitchen sink thrown in, but just in pure pop smarts. This isn’t pure homage, as much as it is taking that influence and moving it five steps ahead, something that many similarly-influenced bands always fail to do (and really, Jellyfish’s output is hardly worth the myth surrounding its greatness). So yeah, cue up the first track “But No No No” here and feel those old “Strawberry Fields” and Revolver influences floating around, but then get ready for something entirely new.
Certainly, the great “Free Lorainne” could have been an unmitigated emo-disaster with any other band, but Fuji Minx takes the tale of the distraught lass and places it into a psychedelic/New Wave mixture. Suddenly Naked Eyes have dropped acid and the kaleidoscopic pop perfection springs to life. The production is impeccable, with Valenti’s voice up front in a gated effect, while the acoustic guitars swirl about in a way that can only be described as dreamlike. This is music that digs deep into the subconscious and flicks all the right switches. It makes you say things like, “Oh yeah. Now I remember why I love to listen to music so much.”
“Waisting Away Part 2” and “Secret Agent Part 2” both showcase Fuji Minx’s indelible mastery of their own sound. Both tunes effortlessly provide examples of how wonderful modern rock can be in this day and age of a fragmented music industry trying to find its way as the old guard crumbles. “Waisting Away Part 2” is pop sexiness done right, while “Secret Agent Part 2” sports one of the most catchy and beautiful chorus hooks heard in a long, long time. It sounds so simple and obvious, and kicks you upside the head so wonderfully that you wonder why so-called “cerebral” bands like Radiohead even bother trying anymore.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Fuji Minx showcases acoustic guitars in the mix so much that it makes their music sound so refreshing. The bouncy, rhythmic thrust of “Bloodsport” is instantly tantalizing, while the mix of acoustic and electric on “Better Place” is equally exciting, with the acoustic guitars blasting through the mix at the choruses. And then there’s the pop majesty of “Dumb” which throws the guitars and pianos into the mixture together as Valenti’s voice caresses the exquisite melodies on top. Is it all too good to be true?
For this listener, it’s hard to find fault with anything here. “Bye Love” is everything a perfect pop song should be, and then some. Hopefully, Fuji Minx will be around a good long time to make a name for themselves. Albums this imaginative and exciting don’t come around often. Where other bands so often easily fall with such lofty ambitions, Fuji Minx makes it all look like a walk through the park. But then again, the best pop rock has always been like that. Users Cheaters Theatres is easily one of the few masterpieces of 2007.