Free Time – Free Time

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Melancholy is best enacted in song through understatement and New York City by-way-of Melbourne quartet Free Time’s eponymous debut LP paints sadness with light strokes. Luckily, the group’s faint outlines of despondence are more evocative than a slathering of grey, miserablist blobs. Each player appreciates the effectiveness of restraint to convey vulnerability and conflict, especially when vocalist Dion Nania’s expressive delivery is so contingent upon soft nuance.

Free Time’s emphasis on instrumental harmonies closely mirroring vocal lines is easily comparable with Nania’s Australian countrymen and women in the Go-Betweens, but his delivery hearkens more to an urban mode of lyrical expression. He commands the subtly of an urbanite projecting rural pastoral, but he can’t escape the affect and posture of a city-dweller. He doesn’t sing forcefully, but mutters understated melody close to our ears. On “Nature’s Cup,” his vocals are doubled, but Free Time declines the trick overall. As much as it achieves the coveted pop, Free Time is wise to eschew heavy-handed production, as every effect kills a part of what makes songs like these so grounded in human experience.

Nania’s pitch flutters, descends into a warbly coo, or he speaks and begins to sing only half-way through the line, illustrating that the difference between his whisper and singing voice is a mere twitch. Nania’s half colloquial delivery mixes with a barely perceptible accent and effete charm that’s sweet enough to endear and peculiar enough to harness attention.

Free Time won’t be pegged compartmentalized as a sad sack indie pop outfit, though, as Nania makes great lyrical strides to ensure. In “It Doesn’t Stop” Nania purrs “I wanna be inscrutable in everything I say.” But, “It’s Alright” is one of the Free Time’s most inscrutable songs. Its deceiving simplicity makes it endure. Its resolution declares “I think I only love you.” A saccharine trope, especially following the image “when I wake up / I’ll go downstairs / and I’ll make coffee for you” or a section in which he hums “so good / go fine / so light / it’s alright,” but other minor details subvert the love song with such subtlety as Nania applies to his vocals. To the last repetition of Nania’s mantra he appends, “even when it’s not alright.” He takes listeners to the airport, he precedes the love declaration with “it’s been a crooked road” and we glean that the narrator is oppressed by psychic baggage, but flies in the face of modern plight with beauty and classic romance. His scenes and sentiments of pleasantry defy everything that’s not alright, for the clichés of a love song are still useful to combat increasingly conflicted modern psyches.

Free Time’s compositions maximize the impact of simple chord progressions by spreading them across various instruments while Nania recycles vocal melodies with alternating lyrics. On “Here and There,” the technique is so prevalent that it’s difficult to imagine the music as more than a backing track for a poem with concrete rhythm. Elsewhere, the guitar leads careen far across the neck for vocal-mimicking leads and demonstrate proper instrumental competency, but even the showiest passages sacrifice virtuosity for the song’s sake. As every player in a pop band should learn, instrumentalist ego is the nemesis of song-craft. Free Time’s players adhere to the maxim beautifully.