Fine China’s debut album is one of those under-heard, underrated and under-loved gems that feels like the lost link between the Sixteen Candles soundtrack and the synth-pop revival that completely upended Blogspot Indie a few years later (sup, of Montreal). It was meant to come out on Plastiq Musiq, a boutique electo-pop label founded by Joy Electric’s Ronnie Martin, but somehow got bumped to the big time on Tooth & Nail, then-home to an impressively diverse roster, but outwardly considered a Christian pop-punk concern (sup, MxPx).
When the World Sings was let loose upon skanking youth-group kids who wouldn’t know a flock of seagulls if it ran all night and day.
I can’t remember how I first came across Fine China… likely “Your Amy,” a lovesick lounge-pop dream on a Velvet Blue Music sampler from 1997; in the mid-’90s, VBM was the alternative to the alternative to the alternative. Several sublevels of outcast exist, even and especially among the ’90s Christian rock scene; we were the (wannabe) art-school kids who swore by Starflyer 59 and The Lassie Foundation, wore faux fur coats and denim jackets, and mockingly and somewhat lovingly nicknamed ourselves “Chrindies.”
Fine China wore a softness on its sleeve when machismo ruled the scene: pouty lips, tousled hair, perhaps a little eye makeup. If those early EPs were unkempt, but pretty, When the World Sings leaned into a sneering, cooing flamboyance with tight t-shirts and tighter pants. Looking back, Fine China’s presentation and performance was pretty queer by scene standards, even if that wasn’t the intention; the band often played to rooms of baggy-jeaned youth groupies, who could not square the band’s glamour with its practically guitar-less punk fervor.
Every song holds up: “We Rock Harder Than You Ever Knew” is the ballsiest, synth-forward opening proclamation I’ve ever heard; “Give Us Treble” is an American Anglophile’s wet dream; the synth swoon of “For All Centuries” makes me blush; “They Will Love Us for Our Instruments” is roséwave before I even gave the lifestyle a name; I still own my “Young and Having Fun” t-shirt, well worn with the stylish model gazing forward.
When the World Sings likely won’t get a deluxe vinyl reissue or a fawning reassessment from the usual places that work anniversaries into editorial coverage. I have been thinking a lot about why we chose to remember some albums over others. And not only that, but how this time, in particular, was less about buying music as it was released, but more as that music came to you (via zine, magazine, friend recommendation) during the Limited Internet Age. I think I only bought a few albums released in 2000 during the year of release: Radiohead’s Kid A, Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, this one and probably some pop-punk CD. Most of my late ’90s were spent playing catch-up with the past decade of punk, hardcore and emo.
When the World Sings wasn’t just an album of glittery sass, though its coy pleasures are endless. In it, I return to the lyrics’ lovesick swoon, but also a young person’s struggles with the ambiguities of modern life and faith, channeling nostalgic naïveté into pop songs. — Lars Gotrich
Fine China’s When the World Sings was released 20 years ago this Saturday, at least according to Discogs. Radiohead’s Kid A was released Oct. 2, 2000, and will receive a stupid amount of anniversary pieces.
Sarah Davachi, Cantus Descant (Late Music): Pipe organ drone + me, slowly nodding and swaying to the deep vibes of Kali Malone, Ellen Arkbro and Anna von Hausswolff = strung-out Lisa Simpson pouring coffee meme (except it’s hot tea). All of these women approach the instrument differently, drawn to the resonant frequencies of a singularly held note. Sarah Davachi lingers on the impressions left, where sound is and used to be. There are plenty of instrumental drone zones on Cantus Descant, but I’m quite taken with the sung Mellotron ballads and aching string arrangements, too.
SAULT, UNTITLED (Rise) (Forever Living Originals): If (Black Is) was music for the march, dipped in funky soul, then (Rise) is for the morning after: bleary-eyed, but strong; in need of coffee, but ready to keep moving.
Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk’): Matthew Shipp plays the piano like a lava lamp; not psychedelic (though, with the right band, he gets there), but in liquid clusters of sound that separate, return and reform. After listening to Shipp for a couple decades, I could pick him out of a dozen pianists blindfolded. It’s uncool to like the conventional in avant jazz, but I’ve always gravitated towards his solo and piano trio albums. The new one with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker furthers that idea, as Shipp somehow tears and pulls apart tradition both lovingly and obstinately at once.
Svalbard, When I Die, Will I Get Better? (Translation Loss / Church Road): If you miss Amesoeurs, the oh-so-stylish French dream-pop band that masqueraded as black metal, Svalbard should be your new disaffected, designer-cigarette-smoking bestie. Ok, fine, this Bristol quartet seems to favor t-shirts and smiles to overcoats and persistent gloom. Think less black metal, more hardcore-driven, post-whatever prettiness that’s come out of Envy’s wake, as Svalbard cuts through serrated screams with a certain serenity and sky-scraping pop-punk hooks.
Futuro, Os Segredos Do Espaço e Tempo (self-released): Fell in love with this Brazilian punk band a couple years ago for its pyrotechnic psychedelia. Futuro leans into a revved-up, windmill-guitar MC5 mania for this EP, so, yes, I am kicking out the jams, motherf**.
Sarah Hennies, The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits): There’s an intuition that comes with a relationship, how certain movements, glances and tones create their own love language. It’s specific, but universal; complicated, but rewarding. In this 86-minute piece for cello and percussion, Sarah Hennies captures the shifting sounds and motions of conversation, verbalized and not, with whirring, squealing, sawing and chiming intimacy.
23 tracks. Opens with some Fine China sass (see above). First there was American Football, then Chinese Football and now… Japanese Baseball (that melody sounds soooo familiar). Ambient shimmer via Andrée Burelli. Western expanse music via North Americans. Western-tinged metal via Wayfarer. Dragon-slaying metal via Megaton Sword. Lydia Loveless gets an assist from Laura Jane Grace for a piano ballad bummer. Hausu Mountain’s in-house jam band, BBSitters Club, yells Joel! a bunch. Closes with a vintage Thai psych-rock band’s take on Sabbath’s “Supernaut” riff.
What: Lip-synching kids dressed in ‘80s clothes (YouTube)
Why: While searching for Fine China songs on YouTube, I came across these blessed children (and someone’s dad?) in stripes, leopard print and fedoras being absolute goofs in the backyard, making their own music video for “We Rock Harder Than You Ever Knew.” Shout out the Neds!