If you look up “sullen” in the dictionary, you may well find a picture of Fine China's lead singer Rob Withem glaring back, eyes hooded and mascara running. Seriously, check out the pictures in the liner notes to The Jaws of Life: these guys look like they’re in a perpetual pouting contest. I can only imagine the mood on the tour bus. Regardless, Fine China were a brilliant band hailing from Phoenix, of all places. They signed a record deal in 1997 and between then and 2005 put out three LPs. The Jaws of Life (sadly, because it finds them at the height of their melancholy swagger) was their last.
Withem’s dour, dream-soaked vocals combined with mega-catchy pop hooks make for a record you’re not sure you sing along with or cry along to. Either works, really; The Jaws of Life is equally at home on a road-trip or bawling your eyes out on your bedroom floor. Few bands are apt at serving both purposes; of course The Cure, The Smiths/Morrissey, and Joy Division set the standard, and Fine China stack up admirably, seamlessly mixing sometimes downright dance-y beats with positively grim lyrics.
"Rated-R" starts things off with a catchy organ line, then the guitar comes in almost surf-y, and then - wham! – that sighing synth smacks you in the face. You know what kind of record you’re dealing with even before Withem opens his mouth. And just in case there’s any doubt, lyrics proclaiming that, “kisses are the cheapest kind of drug,” cement the case.
"Don’t Frown" is presumably about a breakup, but just when things take a turn for the sappy, our singer is admonished repeatedly with, “You’re such a killjoy.” It’s shockingly easy to imagine that someone (or someones) have actually said this to the members of Fine China at some point, especially when the song ends pleadingly, “Please hang around, tell me don’t frown.” Next up is "Are You on Drugs?", hands down one of the best songs on this record, begging a friend to see the truth in a relationship: “Everybody knows/ That it’s not love/ Are you on drugs?” Condescension laid on so thick it devolves into hilarity; this is the point where you realize Fine China are in on the joke and you like them even more for it.
"The Cells Divide (And I Might Ruin My Life)" is a deliciously catchy gem about navigating the depths of vulnerability in relationships. Before that even has a chance to get stuck in your head though, you’ll be singing along with "Skull and Crossbones": “Somebody said I’m nice/ It tweaked me ‘cause they’re right.”
"Bivouac" is more mope-along than sing-along, but the crisp guitar and breathy vocals rescue it from the doldrums. "I’m Sorry For The Hating" is also a bit dirge-like, finding Withem nostalgic for (and ashamed of) experiences he hasn’t even had yet. "I Can’t Fall Asleep" and "Moving Up" continue on that theme, lamenting the aging process from the enviable vantage-point of a 26-year-old.
"My Worst Nightmare" sets fears of being abandoned by loved ones to a sing-along melody. "Prosecute Electrocute" breaks out the most Cure-like riffs, hearkening back to Three Imaginary Boys. And "Person Of The Month" rounds out the record with swelling keyboards and bass set to a frenetic drum machine beat, the singer begging his girlfriend, “I want to be the person of the month/ I need to hear you say you’re still in love.”
Well, I’m still in love with this record, and if you’re the only-happy-when-it-rains type, maybe you’ll fall in love with it, too. Who knew the desert-dry southwest could produce such moist melancholia, especially with all that sun? -- Anneke Chy