What do you get when you mix a former guitarist of a respected indie outfit, chiming guitars, a piano, and a lot of ooey-gooey feeling? Well, generally you get shit, but in this case it’s not quite that extreme and at least it’s not a major label doing the dumping. All Smiles is the name for the pet project of former Grandaddy guitarist Jim Fairchild. The Modesto axeman teams up with Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse to form his solo debut, Ten Readings of a Warning. Although Fairchild certainly knows how to spin a yarn and deal out wild poetry with both his voice and his instrument, the album is largely a mixed bag of a few standouts and a lot of dull.
Fairchild hits his mark when he lets the distortion out of the bag and unleashes his inner garage rocker. These moments are few and far between, but they are present nonetheless and form the backbone of the disc. “Killing Sheep” jangles its spurs under the thick rhythm of raking acoustic chords, while Fairchild warbles low-key musings overhead. The song catches and drops like a doomsday bell and the guitar leads are biting, adding up to one of the punchiest tracks on Ten Readings of a Warning. “Pile of Burning Leaves” sees Fairchild at his most emotionally pointed, hitting the cadence of ratty loverboys born from Billy Corgan. The best part of the track is the percussion, however. A crunchy snare march rides through the refrains and adds beef to the starkness of the aching track. “Moth in a Cloud of Smoke” would have sounded right at home on Weezer’s Blue Album with its towering garage distortion and sweet nerd ramblings.
For the most part though, thrust is sorely lacking on this disc. A couple of tracks are plagued by a frustratingly simple piano stomp, like “The Velvetest Balloon.” I’m sorry, but a dude sitting at a piano and rapping out 24 B minor chords ranks up there with verse-chorus-verse as far as irritating shit goes in pop music. Fairchild also manages to hit his flattest tone of dragged-out crooning on this track. “I Know It’s Wrong” sounds like he bought a connect-the-dots book of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” and skipped a couple of dots. It’s that similar.
From about track six onward, Ten Readings of a Warning dribbles off to a close. Bland four-chord strum progressions and crystalline lengths dominate the second half, and Fairchild settles into a safety net of sweetness. Lumpy tracks like “Backward Forward Through” are nothing to write home about unless you’re looking to get laid. The closing “Of Course It’s Not Up To Me” is a standout among the tepid with its minimalist minor-chord piano and Fairchild’s telling poetics. The song rides its harmonies just enough to leave a lasting impact, and the crushing bass around the two minute mark grasps the ears with heavy fingers.
This is a frustrating album. Ambience is not a good field to occupy with a debut album, and unfortunately that’s what Ten Readings of a Warning is resigned to sit under.