The third outing of the brash skate-punk outfit Fidlar is a definitive step into a more commercial and polished sound, but they may have stepped just a bit too far.
The usual semi-juvenile arrogance and gleeful sneer that comes with Fidlar’s genre is still here, and the music doesn’t get any less sonically heavy or propulsive, but with the scuzz and fuzz cleared up a lot the lyrics become more clear and they are less interesting than you might hope. A lot of the complaints and quandaries explored in Zac Carper and Elvis Kuehn’s lyrics here are valid but are presented in a relatively superficial manner. There is a lot of disgust thrown around towards gentrification, shallow L.A. types, flakey (often L.A.) types, rat-racers, ex-girlfriends, general “nukes” or annoying people, and internet debaters. The complaints are valid, and the topics of each song—and the level of depth given to each topic—are appropriate for the party-ready, amped-up genre, but the high production value given to each song on this new album belies the simplistic stories told.
That’s not to say the album isn’t enjoyable; there is a lot of Fidlar’s classic energy here, and it’s often fun as hell. Almost Free does add a lot of new sonic elements and styles into the blender, which makes the album dynamic and interesting, and at the very least marks it apart from the last two albums, but those experiments aren’t always entirely successful—but they are appreciated.
The album begins with a “fuck you” to gentrification everywhere with a hip-hop beat and the inclusion of a dobro guitar for a kind of startling country-rock flavor. It’s a loud, fun, middle-finger of a piece (imagine the character of Miles from last year’s Blindspotting wrote a song) and an effective album starter. “Can’t You See,” the latest single from the album is one of a couple songs here that carry more than whiff of Brothers-era Black Keys, the other major one being “Flake” which has a stadium-stomp-ready beat reminiscent of both the Black Keys’ “Howlin’ for You” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll.”
“Can’t You See” and “Flake” both fall under the category of “songs about people in L.A. who bother us,” and “Scam Likely” can fit in there too, but it is less musically successful than the first two. While “See” and “Flake” both have a certain swagger that mirrors the “cool” of the song’s subject and the righteous annoyance of the singer, respectively, “Scam” is pretty close to pop and ends up making the rat race they sing about sound more cheeky than intimidating, despite an appealing horn section.
“By Myself” and “Alcohol” both tackle the struggles of staying sober, with the former creating a sound reminiscent of an up-tempo song a drunk might fling themselves around to at a party, while “Alcohol” is one of the heaviest songs on the album by far. The sound of “By Myself” works to mirror the singer’s desire to be able to drink and hang casually while the intensity of “Alcohol” reflects the frustration with people and events that can drive you to drink.
Another intense song—possibly the most intense—is “Nuke,” which also carries the distinction of being less than 40 seconds long. It’s a distillation of Fidlar’s sneering loud-mouth personality that isn’t afraid to tell off anyone who sucks, and it’s probably the most “classic Fidlar” song on the album.
The album overall feels a bit too long, maybe about two songs too long, which becomes clear when you have two songs left. The final pair “Thought. Mouth” and “Good Times Are Over” are just okay, with the former song actually being a bit of a mess, but they are preceded by a collection of songs that are compelling enough to get to, as late in the album as they are. “Called You Twice,” a duet with K. Flay, is on the surface a straightforward breakup song, with regrets and memories of better times, but by adding female vocals and specific lyrics the song becomes a double-interrogation of a failed relationship. It ends up sounding pop enough to be a Significant Song at the End of an Indie Drama, but it is hard to resist despite the small cheese factor.
“Too Real” is a variation on the earlier album songs about “shit we hate,” but it’s likely the one in which the lyrics and music are the most aligned with each other. Carper sings about the constant fighting of everyone in America, and in the world, and illustrates the constant stress that creates through his strained vocals and an occasional bout of hyperventilation.
Ultimately one of the best songs on the album is the short title track, which is the only instrumental. The track grooves along with great, energetic gusto, adding uncharacteristic but attractive horns for a short breakdown halfway through. If the rest of the album contained as much concise flair as that, without muddying the comprehension of the music with juvenile punk lyrics, Almost Free might be a great album. Instead, it is just a good one but perhaps it is a sign of great artistic stretches and experiments to come from Fidlar in the future.