'Navalgazing EP' By Ferns (& My Musings On Twee) [EP REVIEW]
The Kuala Lumpur twee band's ode to the spotty nature of escapism & travel cruises is a rickety boat
GENRE: INDIE ROCK / TWEE POP / DREAMY INDIE RELEASE DATE: 29 AUGUST 2020
Twee Now I promise I’ll get to Navalgazing soon. A review for a 4-track EP shouldn’t be long at all. But for the sake of clarifying my expectations, here are several paragraphs on Twee. (You can skip straight to Ferns and Review if you want. Just scroll)
Twee is a flexible, confusing term for a genre that I hold dear to my heart. In fact, explaining it as a genre is kind of hard because, like many words that fall under the same definitional umbrella, twee sometimes veers away from mere adjectives for sound. Twee occasionally is defined beyond the boxes of musical delivery and explained more clearly in terms of attitude. The way you think of punk as an ethos of subversion, self-sufficiency and/or anti-establishment (or not) and not just really about playing fast simple riffs and shouting. Like punk, (or folk, or pop, etc), the components of twee’s sound & aesthetic is found in many other genres from indie rock to cutesy pop, to murkier pools of water like shoegazing. It’s not a monolith. Twee can still be talked about like a description of sound. Often in songs by twee bands or singer-songwriters, the vocals aren’t typically ballad pop-level powerful. They’re deliberately shaky and are intended to express vulnerability. Most of the time they’re written in typical verse-chorus-verse formats. Sometimes you have quaint vocal harmonies, most of which tend to be girl-and-boy vocals, duet or otherwise (e.g. Belle and Sebastian, She & Him, poppier Jesus and the Mary Chain). But again, there are other genres with all of these elements that I wouldn't consider twee (Language can be so unreliable, hence genre too, yet our unquenchable thirst to try to define things anyway, is what makes reviewing art fun!).
Sunny Sundae Smile is a shoegazing track, yes, but also MBV's most twee song. Like the actual dictionary definition of the British adjective, there’s also a certain kind of sentimentality in twee. Not just lyrically, but in the overall feeling of a song. It’s what makes it possible for Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian to sing lines about revolutions and empires in Nobody's Empire as metaphors for his experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) while still sounding warm and encouraging. It’s that uncanny valley between high school-level poetic romanticism and ineffable profundity that manages to be personal and political at the same time which makes twee beautiful. Of course, not all twee operates in this category. Sometimes they lean in on the cheese a bit harder, like Indonesian twee-pop Mocca, or even the retro-esque love songs of She & Him.
I think my favourite kind of twee - and a lot of lyrical songwriting really - is when musicians aren’t afraid to be specific with their narratives, willing to be personal not just in intention, but also in context and subject matter. Like saying actual names of the person being serenaded instead of hinting at a generic his/her/their like they do in most pop songs. There is magic in relating so powerfully to something belonging to an intimate memory or experience that you yourself as a listener might never have gone through.
That being said, that doesn’t mean I don’t have an appreciation for some good indie-pop with some twee features that are not ‘deep’. Sometimes it’s the sunny mentality, the unabashed cheesiness of twee that makes it great, re: Mocca. Around 2017, I revisited my teenhood obsessions with bands like Belle & Sebastian, She & Him and Camera Obscura, after realising the kind of lyrics that I write in my head in my free time were consciously and subconsciously influenced by that musical compass. In finding a Malaysian equivalent of this compass, I had the pleasure of discovering Ferns. Ferns In 2007, Ferns released their beautiful debut,‘On Botany’. From the start, the band has established their knack for melancholic melodies coupled with a penchant for simplicity. Wordplay decorates the tracklisting as well, as much as they do with the current EP ‘Navalgazing’, with adorable twee lyrics being the debonair main attractions (e.g, “Thought I was just an amoeba, a speckle in your eye” in ‘Love In A Handful of Beans’). Maybe in many ways ‘On Botany’ was minimal, but there were purposeful narrative-like arrangements that make it more than just your run-of-the-mill indie rock, like the storied denouement of ‘When We Die’ or the composition of ‘The Western Front’.
Such a good closer to On Botany
At this point the band still wrestled with labels, claiming to fuse psych-folk-pop with shoegazing according to this AirAsia article. Although these elements were definitely present, their listeners were quick to consider them indie rock or twee pop. In their 2011 instalment, ‘Fairweather Friends’, (my favourite album from then), they owned up to that twee-indie title with gusto. The album features the catchy wonder of ‘Miss Stormcloud’ and ‘Hey OK’, cute love songs like ‘A Funny Feeling’ complete with ukuleles, or the toy piano-like instrumentation in ‘Anti Social Scene. ‘Fairweather Friends’ sees Ferns really going in on the tiny sentimentalities with more boy/girl harmonies by Warren Chan and Abigail De Vries, and a more fully-realised Stuart Murdoch-esque shakiness in Warren’s voice. Better at incorporating beauty in banality, like all good twee.
Almost a decade later, they released a fresh single called ‘Auf Wiedersehen’. It showed thematic promise for Navalgazing as an EP, framed in press statements and interviews as “a passport to heartbreak and holiday fatigue”. Personally, the EP turned out to be a mixed bag that only half-satisfies.
There are a couple of sweet tunes here. The single ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ grew on me eventually as a catchy track even with the initial indifference at its release. The implicit internal rhyme of ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and ‘I’ll be the same’ makes for a wonderful hook. The line ‘A little touch of misery/For free’ is also one of my favourites; worthy enough for me to put it as my MSN Messenger status if that was still a thing. The heavenly background vocals weave beautifully around jangly guitars.
Ms. Aligned also boasts a good melody and contains one of the most comforting, wonderfully fatalist declarations of love in Ferns’s lyrical history: “I’ll mess this up anyway/ And that’s okay”. The lyrical and emotional layers continue in ‘Displeasure Cruise’ (purposefully interchangeable with This Pleasure Cruise which is delightful), a song which feels the most befitting to the album’s focus, covering the doldrums of travel, where all expectations are crushed by the relentlessness of reality. Yet we pull through because we might as well make the most of it when “we paid good money for this pleasure cruise”. It’s sweet perfection and one of my favourite Ferns’s songs to date. The EP, however, ends on a pretty nondescript & flacid note with In Seconds that end up lost in my abyss of forgotten memories even though I’ve listened to this EP at least 5 times. Ferns’s ‘Navalgazing’ is by no means a bad twee or indie rock album. It checks enough boxes to be listenable, to belong in good algorithm-based, editorial-corrected dreamy playlists on Spotify and to still be heralded as a decent return of a band that’s been gone for a long time. However, in comparison to their previous work, ‘Navalgazing’ manifests itself on the shallower side of the pool in many ways. The rhythms and lyrics ring slightly hollower for the most part and don't account for much of the “passport to heartbreak” tagline as I would've expected. But it’s also fair to say that you’re not supposed to judge a 4-track EP the way you analyse a full LP. There can’t possibly be any expectation for a full-fledged concept or a focus when there’s not enough time duration to work with. But then again, even if you consider it as an EP - a track-by-track - ‘Navalgazing’ contains potential, unfortunately with the band's best song still punching beneath its own weight class. This review might just be a really elaborate petition for Ferns to make a full album if they’re gonna give it another shot. I mean, so far, all the tools are there; they just needed to be sharper and more fully-realised. Now it's just expectations of a theme of social claustrophobia and travel cancellations during a time of lonely isolation, faded into the wispy form of moderate-level songs. No real depth, some memorable tunes. Conclusion
Reviews like this are complicated because if you ask me 5 different times on different occasions, I’d probably give you 5 different answers as to what makes a good twee record. Some albums make for cosy living room ornaments, some are the most heart-breaking breakup soundtracks. What if we stick to the setting and eschew the boxes of the genre? Well, if I were to ever feel that aching sadness regarding the temporariness of joy and the world while I travel, I probably will only play ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ & ‘Displeasure Cruise’ on a playlist. Not the whole EP, though.
3 / 5
‘Auf Wiedersehen’, ‘Displeasure Cruise’