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Warts and all

Fences' music sounds like a diary of embarrassing secrets and painful regrets

FENCES: Chris Mansfield, right, isn't afraid to sing about his issues. Photo credit: Facebook

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Sadly, the man who calls himself Fences, Chris Mansfield, was unable to be reached in time for my deadline for an interview. The thing is, I feel like I know him pretty well anyway. Fences' debut self-titled LP is almost uncomfortable in its confessional style. Listening to it feels like stumbling across a diary, flipping through as each page reveals more embarrassing secrets and painful regrets.

Fences comes across as very young, in every sense of the word. Mansfield's interpretations of destroyed relationships, his waffling between self-loathing and self-pity, his declarations of affection that almost sound like fishing for compliments - purposefully or not, he has painted a diverse and honest portrait of a fucked-up guy in his 20s who never knows, moment to moment, the right thing to say. For some people, this kind of flirting-with-emo music has the effect of a great many nails being dragged along a chalkboard. Others may see a bit of themselves in Mansfield's plaintive lyrics.

As an album, Fences mostly occupies the kind of downbeat, folky territory that has become ubiquitous in recent years. Augmented by keyboards, these songs sometimes drag themselves, kicking and screaming, into something more resembling pop songs. Take, especially, the lead single, "Girls with Accents." Led, as per usual, by a strumming acoustic guitar, the song is also accompanied by a bubbling synth hook that wouldn't sound out of place on the first MGMT record. The chorus of, "I'm fucking up everything," sounds simultaneously sad-sack-ish and triumphant, as if acknowledging one's status as a sad sack is the first of many humiliating steps on the road to becoming a more complete person.

Having just listened to the album, it seems to me Fences is making no qualms about wanting to be considered in the same breath as other world champs of the sad sacks - acts like Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith and countless British mopesters from the '90s. Fences, the record, was produced by none other than Sara Quin, who - being one half of Teagan and Sara - is not unfamiliar with the occasional emo session. Were Fences a little stronger in the middle stretch, it wouldn't be so crazy to make more favorable comparisons to those sad sacks of old. As it is, Fences has plenty of room to grow into the kind of artist who can master such an extreme level of self-reflection and navel-gazing.

Although, part of the appeal of Fences is how Mansfield wavers in and out of self-reflection. Sometimes, we feel, he's really taken a good, hard look in the mirror and he's got himself pegged. Other times, he comforts himself in denial, unable or unwilling to explore the real reason for his sadness. This dynamic, in particular, feels just about right to me. To be completely forthright with oneself is practically impossible, and even more so during one's confusing and turbulent youth. Young people are goddamn messes, but this messiness is often cleaned up and polished for the sake of music. Better, I think, to show as much of yourself as you can in the music that you make, even if that means letting us in on aspects of your life or personality that you may not be especially proud of.

Whatever you think of Fences, Mansfield shows us himself, warts and all. While admirable in the grand scheme of things, it does make for an uneven - and occasionally uncomfortable - listen. Is it better to make a statement than to make a perfect record? Perhaps not. And I doubt that was ever Mansfield's intention. Though, of course, I'm extrapolating from an imaginary and particularly one-sided interview, conducted with an album that came drifting from my speakers. This is what I think it said.


with Mansions, Heidi Vladyka, Love Songs From The Hated
Friday, July 29, 9 p.m., $5 advance, $7 door
Hell’s Kitchen, 928 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

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WHAT'S THE WORD?: Grinding

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